Innovation is a process
Innovation can happen by chance, without a determined effort or specific methodology. But when it does, it's more like luck than strategic progress. While there is a role for serendipity in strategy – being able to take advantage of pleasant surprises -- too often, that's the only way companies approach innovation: with fingers crossed. The same organizations that diligently recruit to fill their ranks with clever and creative people often fail to put in place a process that seeks to get the best out of those people. These teams will, given the chance, create new products, new services, and new ways of getting things done. But relying on random efforts is like risking an organization's future success to a straight up roulette bet – or at the velocity of change today, maybe keno is a better analogy.
Instead, managers should develop and apply methodologies that create a consistent, predictable and sustainable path for innovation. They can begin by recognizing that innovation is no longer a stretch goal, but essential to survival. Thus, the development of a highly productive innovation capability is one of the most important strategic priorities for any organization.
At the strategic level, innovation requires leadership, particularly in large organizations where bringing new ideas forward requires an understanding and mastery of the organizational structure. Top managers can be powerful champions of innovation– or dark clouds of suppression. It’s up to leaders to ensure that their words and their actions support and enhance innovation efforts and methods. At the same time they must work diligently to eliminate the many obstacles that otherwise impede or even crush both creativity and innovation.
Innovation is also a social art; it happens when people interact with one another. People are the core of any innovation process. Their insights, concerns, and desires shape the pursuit of new ideas and the decisions that need to be made during the process of transforming these ideas into value. Consequently, managing innovation is largely a process of managing people, and also managing the principles and practices according to the way their work is organized. This requires a great deal of thought, planning, and preparation.
With that in mind, here are three principles for managers to think about as they plan their innovation process.
First, since the goal of any innovation process is to come up with the best ideas and get them into action as quickly as possible, an effective innovation process requires rapid prototyping. The innovation process is a learning process, and learning faster has enormous advantages. Among the best methods for learning is prototyping (try, FAIL, try, FAIL, try, FAIL…) because it condenses the learning process. By the way, the best way to disrupt that learning process – formal staff meetings, status reports, project management office standards – save those for when it is time to go to production.
Paradoxically, effective innovation also requires careful targeting. There are so many possibilities to chase that we have to make sure we’re going after the right ones. Innovation can be expensive both in terms of cash and time, and good aiming enables you to use resources wisely. Here, a lesson from sports – be it pistol shooting, be it zen archery, be it motorsports racing – focusing comes from seeing a broad picture, not from target fixation. Success comes from being able to see the total picture and then choosing and seeing the target in context.
Finally, great innovations begin with great ideas; to find them, identify unknown and unmet needs. There are many different kinds of needs. Among the most significant for innovators are the ones that no one has recognized, as these offer the potential to create breakthroughs that bring significant added value and competitive advantage. Fortunately, there have never been so many inexpensive and highly effective tools to draw ideas from large audiences, including social media and crowd sourcing. With these tools at our disposal, we can reach across the globe and connect people across organizations. But be wary: as Henry Ford said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” Observe what are your customers saying, doing, frustrated by, delighted by – in their natural element, by their natural behavior – then engage in the co-creation of ideas and value.
Successful innovation itself is a paradox, a combination of two diametrically opposed ways of thinking. On the one hand you can think of it as an engineering-driven model, based on convergent thinking. It is a very analytical and rational process. It is quantitatively driven, often research-based, and generally sequential in execution. Design is primarily focused on constraints (real or perceived limits as to what can be done, afforded, or accepted) and is very objective: it focuses on what is known. This is evident in the amount of specific details generally involved in this mode of innovative thinking. If it cannot be made manifest, then it is not really an innovation is it?
Equally important to innovation are the qualitative, inspirational “ah ha!” moments. This model employs more divergent thinking: it is both creative and intuitive (which may be the wonderful analog computer in our heads performing the big data analytics function of quantitative input, only in a different manner). This approach to idea generation and evaluation is qualitative and subjective (“It feels right”, “It’s cool”). While quantitative engineering processes and decision making tends to focus on the constraints that have to be lived within, this other approach relies on conceiving new possibilities.
Innovation is how organizations create their own futures. Processes of efficiency and risk reduction (Ready aim, aim, aim,…., get approval, call consultants, survey the market….., schedule the capital committee, …. Re-org or build org,…. fire) won't cut it in the coming pace of innovation. Established companies will have the harder struggle. They have been successful because of what they do, but now they must reengineer their processes to be more adaptive and they must improve, enhance, and reinvent, their product and service lines—applying innovation to those business models and process as well as their products and services, with the goal of creating outcomes that will delight their customers. Sometimes it is added “and that the competition will be unable to match.” At one time that was probably true – but the rate of technological, organizational, social, governmental and even knowledge change suggests no one has time to focus on matching anymore, only surpassing.
"For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting."
- Gen. George C. Patton
Innovation is a continuing process. All success from innovation is fleeting. Your marketplace isn’t waiting, your competition isn’t waiting, your investors aren’t waiting - so create your action plan and start implementing it now!