“INNOVATION IS DEAD.” This is not what one would expect a well-known management professor and co-author of a successful book on the very topic of innovation to say, but Dr. Paddy Miller has many ideas that defy the expectations of people with conventional management training and outlook.
Miller is a management professor at the IESE business school at the University of Navarra in Spain. He has an impressive resume of academic and consultation credentials, including stints with China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, the University of Cape Town, the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan, Harvard Business School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Columbia University School of Business in New York. In addition to advising a list of major global companies, he also sits on the boards of IESE USA and Vivaldi Partners in New York.
I caught up with Miller, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Mark Twain, on his recent brief visit to Manila just before the All Saint’s Day holiday.
Miller’s most recent book, “Innovation as Usual” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013), which he co-authored with professor Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, trashes traditional notions of “innovation” as a separate process within an organization, and effectively espouses making it an integral part of the everyday business environment.
“It’s a dead horse that we’ve beaten and beaten,” Miller said of the concept of innovation, “And what we’ve ended up with are a lot of people who are very good at innovation terminology and not very good at actually creating an environment where innovation can happen.”
Miller explained, to make “innovation as usual” the way business is done, leaders at all levels of an organization have to become “innovation architects.”
“Leaders need to create a space where innovation can happen,” Miller said. “Lots of ideas, or potential ideas, are stopped by the organization. So it’s really changing from a focus on process to a focus on a way of thinking.”
Miller suggested that a key part of that way of thinking is a constant focus on possible ways to streamline and facilitate the main ‘point’ of the business, using the comparison of his experiences of renewing a passport and checking into the Peninsula Manila to illustrate his point.
Both organizations have one essential task; issuing passports in the case of the former, and providing a room to a visiting traveler in the latter’s case. At the passport office, however, one must provide many documents and stand in a long queue, whereas at the hotel —at least at the Peninsula Manila —a guest with a reservation is delivered from the airport straight to his room, the intermediate process of checking in at the front desk not being absolutely necessary prerequisites to providing what the customer wants.
“I would hire people from the hotel business to run the passport office,” Miller said, not entirely jokingly.
The anecdote illustrated two key points of “Innovation as Usual”: “Focus beats freedom,” or looking only for ideas that matter to the essential objectives of the business, and “Insight comes from the outside,” encouraging people to look outside their immediate environment for ideas and inspiration.
The book explains that being an “innovation architect” and creating a space for ideas to flourish does not necessarily mean an absence of constraints, a point that Miller also stressed in our conversation. “Not all constraints are bad,” he explained, but in the book these are best described as self-imposed constraints: Putting the focus on the essential goal of the business and searching only for related ideas are two of them; others are an understanding that not all ideas are good ones, and that first ideas, even if they are promising, are often flawed and need constant refinement.
One constraint that does not necessarily help create an innovative atmosphere and usually can’t be eliminated is the nature of the organization itself, or what might be colloquially called “office politics.” Miller’s and Wedell-Wedellsborg’s book devotes a significant amount of space to a concept called “stealthstorming,” one that would certainly be of interest to people navigating the sometimes byzantine world of Philippine business.
Miller explained “stealthstorming” as a way of working around the organizational obstacles to developing ideas; either processes or people who stop ideas with statements like “we’ve already tried that,” or “we don’t have funding for that,” Miller said. The book illustrates the way to overcome the dilemma with examples from the pharmaceutical industry (where Miller has done extensive consultation work), which he briefly described: Rather than following the usual process of creating an idea (“and a PowerPoint presentation to go with it,” Miller added sarcastically) and taking it to the CFO for funding approval, a team that conceived a new process worked on it “under the radar,” pulling funds from petty cash and using other available resources to fully develop it, then presenting upper management with what amounted to a fait accompli, essentially giving them an idea so good they had no choice but to endorse it.
“Stealthstorming” is a key part of Miller’s teaching to his graduate students. “The exercise is this,” he said. “You must develop and implement a new idea. You do not have permission to do this, and you do not have funding. Go.”
Some of the results, a few of which are detailed in the book, have been remarkable, and range from the simple—such as a seemingly-mundane change that greatly improved production and service efficiency in the university canteen—to the sophisticated, such as an enterprise called Prehype, which took what some might describe as a “meta” approach to Miller’s assignment, and created a successful firm that serves as a sort of “stealthstorming” outsource, helping to develop start-up ideas with corporations and entrepreneurs.
“Innovation as Usual” is an essential read for anyone interested in getting the most out of his or her team or organization, and is available from the Harvard Business Review online store (www.hbr.org/store) and Amazon.