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Driving Innovation Forward: Why Tempo Is Everything

New Zealand soldier, Exercise Talisman Sabre 2017 (ABC Capricornia)

A commander must accustom his staff to a high tempo from the outset and continually keep them to it.

If he once allows himself to be satisfied with norms, or anything less than an all-out effort he gives up the race from the starting post and will sooner or later be taught a bitter lesson by his faster-moving enemy and be forced to jettison all his fixed ideas.

Erwin Rommel

The key to successful innovation in any organisation is tempo. The innovation tempo of the organisation is arguably more important than the often-touted values of creativity, agility, empowerment and technology-centric thinking which seem to crowd the current lexicon. Innovation tempo may lack the excitement of these values, but without it all efforts to engender innovation within an organisation will fail.

Innovation tempo is an organisation’s ability to take an idea from concept through to fully implemented change. It is comprised of two main values; the number of ideas that can be processed (quantity) and how quickly they can be processed (velocity). An organisation with a low tempo might take on a few projects but take years to deliver results, where-as an organisation with a high tempo will be able to take new ideas and turn them into reality within a reduced time-frame.

Quantity X Velocity = Innovation Tempo

The tempo of innovation within an organisation is crucial because it empowers organisations to rapidly adapt to a changing environment. An organisation that can adapt quickly is able to take advantage of emerging or adapted technology before other organisations can. This gives them freedom of maneuver to utilise the technology before potential competitors can implement counter-measures. Having a high tempo of innovation also encourages further innovation within the organisation as visible success engenders confidence in the organisation’s ability to deliver desired change. If personnel at all levels have confidence that their ideas can and will be implemented quickly, they will not only be more willing to put their ideas forward but they will actively look for ways to exploit new technologies.

Driving innovation tempo is easier said than done. There are three key components to tempo that all interlink with each other; culture, resourcing and systems. In order to increase the tempo of innovation organisations need to foster a culture of a willingness to try new ideas and learn from experience. The key enabler for this culture is a command culture that doesn’t punish ‘failed’ experiments. These ‘failed’ experiments should actually form the backbone of an extensive lessons learned database which lists the factors that contributed to the failure. When new ideas are submitted this database can be searched for similar ideas that were tried. If a similar idea has already been tried then one simply has to examine the factors that lead to failure, and if none of these factors have changed then the idea is not pursued further.

Resourcing is also incredibly important. An argument can be made that austerity drives innovative thinking and this is technically correct. However, while austerity drives innovative thinking, resourcing turns that thinking into action. If innovation is not properly resourced then ideas will take a very long time to implement, reducing confidence and dragging down the tempo as both quantity and velocity are adversely impacted.

Systems are the final driving factor behind tempo. While the least exciting aspect, it is potentially the most important. Innovation cells need to ensure that they have standardised, repeatable systems that take in ideas and then, assess, prioritise, investigate, and implement change. This repeatable process allows a large number of projects to be carried out concurrently. Process based systems also prevent innovation being driven by ‘personalities’. While personality is key for getting innovation off the ground it cannot sustain a high tempo long-term. This is especially true for the military with its regular posting cycle.

The biggest detriment to innovation tempo is Innovation Theatre. Innovation Theatre is when an innovation cell has all the accruements of innovation, small ‘problem solving teams’, whiteboards, post-it notes, tablets, t-shirts, ping pong tables and ‘rank free zones’ but no real drive to implement change. It has the trappings of innovation but no substance. It sits apart from the organisation, without an understanding the needs of the people on the ground. Unless appropriately harnessed (location and direction), Innovation Theatre can result in a lot of ‘nice ideas’ but no implemented innovation.

Innovation Theatre is chronic for generating lots of un-implementable ideas and then blaming the organisation for not being adaptable enough to the ideas put forward. A key give-away for Innovation Theater is the number of implemented projects, if nothing has been implemented in the last 12 months despite significant resourcing then it is likely you have a case of Innovation Theatre on your hands. Because it achieves no results, Innovation Theater is the proverbial hand brake of innovation tempo.

Tempo is a concept that militaries understand implicitly. Applying it to innovation has the same impact of applying to maneuver, you are able to outpace your opponents and exploit ground and opportunities that they cannot. Our tempo is determined by how many ideas can be implemented and how quickly. Once a high tempo is achieved it will engender further innovation within the organisation. This tempo comes from a willingness to explore ideas and take risks while being backed by robust systems and sufficient resourcing. However, in an attempt to generate tempo, we can invariably fall into performing Innovation Theatre. This ‘performance’ decouples innovation from its main aim of delivering needed change to the organisation and instead ends up coming up with ‘cool’ ideas, that are never acted upon. Innovation will be the key to success in the 21st century, and a cultural focus on tempo is what will drive us forward.

About the author 

Tim Jones is the Assistant Director Defence Excellence (Innovation) New Zealand Defence Force. He is also a member of the New Zealand Army Reserves, serving in the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment.