Innovation, Benchmarking & the 5 Stages of Grieving

92% of executives surveyed as part of the “GE Global Innovation Barometer 2012” agreed that innovation is the main lever to create a more competitive economy.

Steven Johnson identifies 7 key principles that are a catalyst for innovation in his book “Where Good Ideas Come From“, 2 of which I’ve noted below:

  • seizing existing components or ideas and repurposing them for a completely different use
  • adapting many layers of existing knowledge, components, delivery mechanisms that in themselves may not be unique; but which can be recombined or leveraged into something new that is unique or novel.

So clearly, open-minded companies  have a need and can benefit from great practices developed by organizations of any size . . . in any industry. So why don’t they?

First of all, most people believe their organization is so unique that it can’t be compared to any other. Also, with the inevitable benchmark comparisons, “the successes and failures of an organization are there for all to see” as noted by Peter Drucker. And who wants to embrace something that could cast your organization in a bad light?

At the same time, I’ve seen how people do learn to use benchmarking to find “Good Ideas”, make big improvements, and set new standards for performance after they go through a five-stage process of adjustment that’s virtually identical to the steps in the grieving process. (My wife, who’s a social worker, pointed out that intriguing comparison to me.)

How doubters become “do-ers”

  1. The first stage is Denial. You just found out that another company does something better than you do. So the natural inclination is to deny the basis for the comparison. “The findings don’t apply to us, because we’re a very different organization.”
  2. Stage two is Anger. “This ridiculous and completely unwarranted comparison doesn’t make any sense because the other guys are” (choose one): Bigger, Younger, Serving very different customers, Smaller, older, fill in the blank _______”
  3. After the anger wears off, it’s time for the Bargaining Stage. This is when people point out all the reasons why it’s impossible for their organization to live up to the benchmark. “Sure they do it in two days. But because we’re bigger it’s only reasonable to expect us to handle the same task in five days.” In other words, inflation hits the benchmark during this lowering-the-bar stage.
  4. What happens next? Depression. This is the time for hand-wringing, head shaking and highly visible chair-slumping. “Boy, they really are that good. And we’re not! We might as well run up the white flag and surrender, because we’ll never measure up.”
  5. Now for the good news: There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. After all of these understandable human reactions have run their course, people are finally ready to move to the Final Stage: Acceptance. “OK. There’s a Grand Canyon-sized gap between our organization and the benchmark. So let’s start building a bridge!”

This is the time when people get fired up to tackle the problem and beat the benchmark. And that’s when innovations occur that, in retrospect, are brilliant in their obviousness and simplicity.

I’ve seen people go through these five stages time after time. But I’ve also learned something else: If you understand the stages and recognize where you stand in the process, you can move through the whole thing much faster. And that will accelerate the innovation cycle and improve the performance of the entire organization.

When you create a culture that is open to new ideas, from anywhere, and shares them freely, you can add a really important stage after Stage Five – let’s call it “Stage 6: Getting Results.”

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