Organizations aspiring to become more innovative have often approached us for leadership development solutions.  We would shudder when they also felt that they were hampered by a culture that was steeped in Six Sigma for achieving operational efficiency.  While it may seem that these two have conflicting purposes, it is our belief that Innovation and Operational Efficiency need each other – indeed for an organizational capability that sustains innovation, both are imperative.  Here are some things that realize the benefits of both.

Leveraging Polarities

Leaders are continually being told that they need to get better at managing ambiguity and paradox.  Polarity mapping, developed by Barry Johnson, enables leaders to approach highly complex challenges as polarities to be leveraged rather than problems to be solved.  Having such a tool in your leadership repertoire enables you to develop and apply your skills to solve these complex challenges.

Connecting innovation to strategic challenges

It is typically hard to justify efforts to innovate when they appear to be innovations for innovation’s sake.  Innovation works best when it has a job to do – when there is pain, lack of progress, and complexities recognized within the organization and a desire backed by management support and possibly financial investment to resolve the challenges.  We know of one innovative organization whose whole strategy process revolves around continually identifying strategic challenges faced by the organization, and then appointing a senior executive to champion communication of the challenge throughout the organization and sponsor and connect ideas and innovative efforts emerging from further down the organization to resolve the challenge.

Integrate creative problem solving and design thinking into quality training

Six Sigma (and other approaches to resolving quality issues), creative problem solving and design thinking are all – at their core – problem solving methodologies  but typically applied to different kinds of problems. Creative problem solving and design thinking uses frameworks and tools that can supplement the more  analytical approach characteristic of Six Sigma in order to facilitate the resolution of complex challenges facing the organization.  Design thinking and creative problem solving facilitate the development of opportunities that may have escaped the attention of the organization’s prevailing strategy. For example, when Proctor and Gamble were seeking new products for cleaning floors their conventional problem solving approaches suggested new kinds of chemical cleaner.  A design thinking approach led them to develop the Swiffer® – no chemical involved and the creation of a multi-billion dollar revenue stream.  Six Sigma comes into its own when ideas emerging in the organization have matured and are ready for transition into the mainstream and development and scaling as innovations.

Reset your focus on quality outcomes

Resetting focus is about continually questioning of the intent of quality processes. Regularly ask yourself: Is your intended outcome still relevant?  If so, are there more innovative AND efficient ways of achieving this outcome? Over-focusing on operational effectiveness using approaches such as Six Sigma can lead to unintended consequences for an organization, such as becoming vulnerable to competitive new products and services, avoidance of even low-risk innovative ideas, and ultimately becoming stuck when faced with seemingly intractable problems.

Innovation is not just about new products

When asked to offer examples of innovations and of innovative companies many of our clients name well-known products from well-known brands.  The usual suspects include Apple, Google, Cirque du Soleil, etc.  Larry Keeley and his colleagues at Doblin have identified ten types of innovation.  Their applied research demonstrates that successfully innovative organizations engage in more than one type of innovation.   Product innovation is only invoked by two of the ten.

Much recent research identifies leadership as key to innovation and the major factor that predicts the success or failure of organizations (for example: IBM’s “Cultivating organizational creativity in an age of complexity” and Capgemini’s “Innovation Leadership Study – Managing innovation: An insider perspective”).  CEO Challenge 2014, a Conference Board report released in February 2014 identifies Innovation as one of the top 5 global CEO challenges.  If your organization is serious about becoming more innovative, invest in developing leaders who can engage their own and others’ innovation capabilities and in developing a leadership culture that embraces, enables and sustains innovation and its twin, operational efficiency: both vital components of an organizational capability for growth.

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