Innovation 5I have been exploring innovation in the compliance function this week. For my final piece I want to consider the innovation process itself. In an article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, entitled “Finding a Lower-Risk Path to High-Impact Innovations”, authors Joseph V. Sinfield and Freddy Solis came up with a different method to view the innovation process. They posited something called the ‘Lily Pad’ approach, which they believe can be a lower risk stratagem to innovation. I found that this approach had some interesting applications for the compliance discipline.

The authors begin with the premise, which is found in the traditional risk-reward theory, when they noted, “Innovation initiatives and the funding programs that support them are generally viewed as “investments,” with an expectation that taking higher risks should be rewarded with higher returns. At the low-risk, low-return end of the spectrum, we tend to see investments that drive incremental innovation or development of innovations that are already proven. At the opposite extreme are corporate “skunk works” that seek to drive innovation in technology and business models to develop whole new product or service categories.” Compliance initiatives can fall anywhere along this spectrum for the reason that if they fail, it can create the conditions for a more systemic failure, which could bring the catastrophic consequences of a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) or other legal violation.

The authors believe that an incremental approach, which they designate as the ‘Lily Pad’ approach, “are developed and introduced opportunistically in application spaces that are ready for adoption. Progress in one lily pad garners resources/cash flow earlier in the development process and can create a pathway for subsequent lily pads in other application spaces.” This allows innovations to break out from their initial breakthrough at an organization, through the period where “decisions about which capabilities to develop and which application contexts to pursue” are made by the development team. All this leads to a progressive cascade of innovation moving forward, as visualized by the authors, as leaping from one lily pad to the next.

The authors list some characteristics of innovations, which they believe leaders should consider for investment. I have adapted them for the compliance function. Does the innovation “offer multiple pathways from first principles to impact” and how relevant is the innovation to multiple business lines or units? Will the innovation change the perspective of employees and even move towards reconfiguring the compliance ecosystem? Finally, is there potential for both growth and improvement in the innovation going forward?

After you have gone through and answered these questions, you should be ready to move forward with what the authors called ‘enabling actions’ and implement one or more of the innovations. By using their approach, the authors write that “Lily pad applications for an enabling innovation provide opportunities to match capability, purpose, and context in a manner that advances select performance dimensions of the innovation, aligns elements of ecosystems, and/or begins to shift” employee views across your organization. But more than simply the singular innovation, the lily pad approach allows your company to reduce the time and cost to jump to the next iteration of development.

Finally, the authors believe that you must “understand and proactively shape the ecosystem”, which for the Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner, means working with the business teams so that they understand how and why the innovation will help them achieve their corporate goals. Simply put employees can get stuck in the same rut of doing the same thing the same way. Yet it is a maxim that your compliance program must evolve to meet new risks and new demands. The authors’ lily pad approach allows for an incremental growth of change in ways that can demonstrate effectiveness and allow not only feedback but also acceptance from the employee base.

An example of such an approach could be around the use of data driven analysis from the compliance perspective of all dramatic growth in sales. Recall that there is no materiality level under the FCPA, so the business unit that experiences a dramatic growth in sales, even if non-material within the entire organization, could be the basis of a FCPA enforcement action. By focusing your innovation on one business unit that has experienced a dramatic growth, even if it is in a province of one country or a relatively small country in one larger geographic region, you can use this approach to demonstrate the usefulness of such data monitoring.

The lily pad approach would inform the presentation going forward as every business would want to know and understand how a dramatic growth occurred. Was it product driven? Was it personnel driven? Was a new sales campaign employed? Did a new or different product come to market? Of course, if the sales spike was due to nefarious activity such as bribery, corruption, financial fraud, accounting fraud or other egregious behavior then it can be reviewed and remediated as appropriate. For corporate management the initial results obtained by such a review could be the start of an entire innovation process around any portion of the sales cycle that might have been impacted by such stunning sales growth. It could certainly lead to better and more robust business forecasting going forward.

The authors end their article with four key questions, which I found to be an appropriate manner to end this series on innovation in compliance. First, do you understand the role of innovation in your compliance strategy? Second can you spot the innovations as this may well require you to think differently, particularly if you come from the legal department or have legal training, which certainly does not favor or foster innovation. Next, do you have the ability to adapt to innovations in your compliance function to the company as a whole? Put another way, can you demonstrate how an innovation in compliance will help the company do business more efficiently and in compliance with applicable laws. Of course it all begins with the willingness to engage in innovation and that starts with the top of your organization.


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© Thomas R. Fox, 2016