Build on small success to achieve bigger wins
Innovation is risky, so starting out small and building on success is critical
If your firm does not have a history of success with innovation, start small
Look for people who are passionate and willing to tackle something new
Build a committed group that is diverse and represents a range of expertise
Pick 3-4 smaller efforts with a higher likelihood of success to start
Once you prove value, look to expand to larger and riskier innovation efforts
Denver and the story of Union Station
I had the privilege this week of kicking off the Technology & Claims Symposium hosted by the Property Liability Resource Bureau (PLRB) in beautiful Denver, Colorado. Denver is a historic city consumed with reinvention similar to New York City. I saw construction everywhere - at the airport, on the train ride into the city, around downtown and at my hotel. When in Denver, I make a point each time to visit Union Station, a historic landmark that has been restored to a magnificent structure full of shops and places to dine.
Union Station is important historically for many reasons. When initially completed in 1881 it featured the tallest structure in the Western United States, a 128-foot tower. Before its opening, Denver saw a rapid rise in the number of trains and railroad connections which led to the opening of many smaller stations. In the state of Colorado, the amount of railroad tracks exploded from a mere 328 miles in the year 1870 to over half a million miles by the year 1900. Denver was previously relatively isolated, as the city is not located on navigable waterways like many other locales. The growth in rail traffic was crucial for the expansion of the city, yet the myriad development of smaller stations quickly led for the need to build one central station to better manage the traffic from across the country. This single train station was appropriately named Union Station to signify bringing together all of the smaller stations under one roof. Once the business model of railroads and train stations was proven to work, sights turned to capitalizing on achieving scale and to construct the more ambitious vision of Union Station.
Start small, then build on quick wins by going big
During the Symposium, I received a question from the audience about how best to target innovation efforts to help gain traction within an organization. I am a big believer in starting small when there is little or no track record of successful innovation to build upon. Innovation is a discipline and practice makes perfect. No organization “gets it right” the first time out, but initial failures can led to skepticism, a loss of confidence, and ultimately failure to meaningfully pursue innovation efforts. By definition, innovation is risky; otherwise, it would not be truly innovative but rather simply an improvement.
So how do you get began and start building momentum to achieve success? There are a few key ingredients. First, from the innovation ideas that have been captured, select a few that a group of stakeholders believe have the greatest chance of succeeding. This may be because there are a limited number of unknowns, or other organizations have already proven the idea can be successful. I do not recommend starting with only a single innovative idea, because while it may be tempting to focus all of your energies on the successful implementation of that single idea, there is a risk that you will not succeed and will lose valuable momentum and support. Rather, focusing on a small number and a variety of potential “quick wins” is preferred. Once multiple efforts have become success stories, then the returns from those investments can be used to justify larger and riskier efforts that are more ambitious in size and scope.
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Prioritize passion, diversity, and mix of expertise
If your organization does not have a history of successful innovation, you are likely to encounter a lot of initial skepticism and pushback within your firm when starting out. For this reason, it is important to select people for the project team that have a positive outlook on the chances for success and are passionate about making it work. Additionally, it is important to incorporate a diverse array of backgrounds and viewpoints to ensure there are no blind spots and to help overcome unexpected obstacles that will inevitably come up along the journey. Creating a team comprised of a range of multiple disciplines with experts from a variety of fields is also critical to avoid groupthink and ensure that the team has as broad a view as possible.
Another question I received at the Symposium was focused on hiring and what to look for. I am a big believer in empathy and strong interpersonal skills, particularly when there is not a well-established process or path to achieving success. Clear and consistent communication among the team members working on your innovation efforts is crucial. In addition, change management is required throughout the process to keep key stakeholders and the broader organization up to date. Finally, focus on what the 5-10 year time horizon looks like for your industry and work backwards to identify a roadmap to guide the future of your organization is important as well. Rather than simply focusing on achieving a mishmash of quick wins, it is best to achieve success on efforts that serve as building blocks for larger investments needed for the future. The idea is to build upon your successes while minimizing the time and cost involved with innovation efforts, allowing for failure before projects become a “sunk cost” that overcommits your organization and become large mistakes.
How would you rate the maturity of innovation at your organization? Does your firm have a long history of success to build upon or not? If so, what are some of the key ingredients that have fueled your success? If not, how can you build an appetite for innovation within your culture? How can you identify the right individuals to make up a diverse team? Which areas and disciplines should be represented? What is needed from your leadership team?