NerdWallet Book Club: Chris Trimble and Vijay Govindarajan, ‘How Stella Saved the Farm’ and ‘Beyond the Idea: How to Execute Innovation in Any Organization’

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NerdWallet recently spoke with Tuck School of Business Professor Chris Trimble about two of his recent books on innovation. He and Tuck School of Business Professor Vijiay Govindarajan wrote How Stella Saved the Farm and Beyond the Idea, to build on their previous books about innovation. Stella offers an accessible parable reminiscent of Animal Farm. Beyond the Idea offers a quick and accessible distillation of Trimble and Govindarajan’s research and ideas.

Why did you write How Stella Saved the Farm and Beyond the Idea? How do the two books work together?

After writing three formal and rigorously researched books about about innovation, we realized that there were simply not enough people reading them. Innovation is a team sport. Therefore, to effect change, you have to reach entire teams, not individuals. Stella and Beyond the Idea are short. They can be read in one sitting—normally in under an hour and a half. Most importantly, teams can read them together and talk about them.

Stella is more of a conversation starter. It conveys most of the basic ideas from our books. Beyond the Idea is more of an operating manual. After teams read Stella, they can refer to Beyond the Idea to get a better sense of how they should organize and approach innovation.

How have your books been received? Do you have workshops?

Just yesterday, I gave a Stella workshop. People had a lot of fun with it. You only have to ask one question: Who really saved the farm? And—if you read the book—it’s obvious that there is a good argument for each character.

The discussions help really flesh out what it takes to succeed with innovation. They show that no team is effective unless everyone understands every other team member’s role.

What’s the hardest part of innovation?

Most companies imagine innovation is about ideas. The execution piece, however, is often the most difficult. People often gloss over the blood sweat and tears required to implement good ideas. The crux of the challenge is that you must do two things at once: both build something new and sustain excellence in what already exists. That’s tough because these two are inevitably in conflict.

It is also difficult to properly time innovation efforts. The best time to start innovating is when growth starts to slow, but the company is still healthy and there is free capital. Companies often wait until it is too late to start innovating.

What are the different types of innovation?

Long before our books, there were different innovation typologies. Most described the way to generate ideas for innovation. What we tried to do was focus on execution. We wanted to find figure out the physics of getting work done.

We believe there are three types of innovation. First, there is innovation for small projects. Second, we believe there is repeatable innovation. These are projects that are repeatable. Finally, there is custom innovation–basically all other projects.

How does innovation differ between public and private companies?

For private companies it’s really quite simple. Innovation depends on the owner and his risk appetite.

For public companies, it’s a bit harder. It boils down to Wall Street’s expectations. Some companies are locked into tight expectations for quarter-to-quarter earnings.

Innovation is, by nature, a worse-before-better endeavor. Some companies are able to communicate that to investors and shareholders, and are able, therefore, to create more flexibility for taking risks.

For example, Corning [a glass and ceramics company] does a great job of communicating an innovation story to investors. They have been around for 150 years. Investors know that in order to survive, Corning must constantly innovate.

How do investors know if a company is doing a good job of innovating?

One of the interesting things is that R&D spending is not representative of innovation. I wish more companies would share information on their processes. Otherwise, it is a rather opaque process. It is difficult to see how companies are executing their ideas unless you speak with people within the company and can gauge how they’re organizing their innovation efforts.

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