The Theory of “Un-constraints”: Avoiding the Trap of Innovation Process Dependence



One of the most debated management topics surrounding innovation is the application of an innovation process. Two camps primarily drive the narrative: 1) a rigorous process to foster ideas (see my colleague Jay’s recent blog) or 2) no process for ideas to grow spontaneously or organically.

In my several years of experience in a pure Research and Development environment, process constrains the very ideas that it was established to grow. Process tends to create the following constraints:

  1. Overdependence on the process – essentially building an idea factory
  2. Lack of willingness to bring ideas to light due to the incredible amount of work to launch an idea
  3. Almost impossible expectations for accuracy (i.e., estimates for cost, schedule, resources, equipment, etc. in an undefined environment)
  4. Over management or process bloat
  5. Measuring the wrong things – conflicting metrics and the reality that you get what you measure

The fact is that most people in an innovative environment prefer to experiment and test theories freely flowing from one hypothesis to the next. A constraining process begins to shift the emphasis from results and accomplishments to detailed estimates, status reports, and unwanted administration. Talented personnel are forced to focus on process related tasks as opposed to experimentation and valuable time spent in the lab (or in some entrepreneurial circles a garage); breakthroughs often times happen spontaneously in the surroundings of a lab and rarely result from the development of slideware.

Thinking more broadly about the different types of innovation that span from incremental to radical, the same dynamics associated with process persist. In an incremental innovation scenario, most often innovation is closely tied to an existing product or platform usually narrowing the scope of the R&D activity. In this scenario, innovation has even more influence from core business processes driven by product managers and others that are more production minded. Similarly, in a radical innovation environment the process drivers are different, such as: ROI, yield rates, and speed-to-market, yet equally interject tremendous process overhead. Both scenarios dictate the avoidance of dogpiling R&D process on top of core business process knowing that the core business process invariably seeps into R&D.

What are some solutions?

In application the realities of coveted R&D budgets, limited resources, cost control and the need to market and sell products exist. In order to combat the process seep from the core business, what are a few methods to protect the R&D space?

  1. Acquire commitment from senior leadership
  2. Balance the requirements for innovation with the needs of the business
  3. Dedicate a budget manager to tackle status reports, budgets, and schedules
  4. Maintain freedoms required in the R&D environment
  5. Foster a culture that is tolerant to risk and failure
  6. Create Separation as a buffer between R&D and the business