Having spent the last five years in front-end innovation and now moving into a new role managing an innovation process I have come across a few must-do’s when it comes to enabling innovation in companies. Innovation is one of those hip words that is back on the agenda after everyone has cost-cut their way out of trouble and Total Quality Managed themselves until even the morning coffee making adheres to a strict Six Sigma process. There is a lot of expectation on Innovation to deliver prosperity for all. The trouble with innovation is that it is a delicate thing and there are more ways of doing it wrong that there are for doing it right. To keep things simple I have tried to gather some fundamentals into this post, the must-do’s if you like – so the thinking is that if you manage to do these you are already halfway there to being a successful innovator.

1) None of us are as smart as all of us
Many companies leave the ‘innovating’ to a group of select few, thinking that only this way there will be someone dedicated to the pursuit of innovation. There is nothing inherently wrong with this thinking, it is more the attitude and role people play in this situation. Innovators are at best facilitators, great listeners and connectors who bring together people from many parts of the company to distill the best thinking from around and turn it into bankable opportunities. This is the best case scenario, however more often than not these experts are easily be tempted to withdraw from the greater hustle and bustle of the organisation to concentrate on ‘innovating’ in peace.

For innovation to happen and make it to the market you need everyone and even more importantly, you need everyone’s support and insights, because you cannot afford to alienate people from the process of innovation by creating two classes of citizens: those who get to have fun and think of ideas all day long and those, whose job it remains to get on with the daily grind and put food on the table for everyone else. If this is the case you will find that magically, most ideas will get killed before they ever get to market. Why? Because the rest of the organisation became bent on ensuring the ideas from this select crew would never make it further than the Ivory tower. Why? Because by not involving anyone else, there is no reason for anyone else to champion the ideas in the absence of this ‘special’ group. And ideas get killed. Over and over again.

2) Let a thousand flowers bloom
Unfortunately this rather useful title was first mentioned by Chairman Mao and with very unfortunate consequences. Here appropriated to explaining that not every idea has to be a blockbuster. Sufficient numbers of small or incremental innovations can lead to big profits. And many apparently blockbusting innovations are in fact several clever smaller ideas combined together in an unbeatable package. So you never know where that tiny idea might lead, so let it out!

3) Innovation is everywhere
Don’t just stare yourself blind at the next product innovation, innovation can come from anywhere: marketing, production, finance, supply chain, distribution or even the famous janitor who no one ever thinks of asking except in films. And I’m not kidding. It was in fact a janitor who thought of the way to fix a textile company’s problem with thread snapping and made the company fortunes. The only reason his idea was heard was because a new executive joined who was committed to hearing out any idea regardless of where it came and his openness and affability encouraged the janitor to speak up. When asked how long the janitor had had the idea he replied ’30 years’, which goes some way to explaining how much hackneyed focus on a select few ‘problem-solvers’ alone can cost a business in the long run.

4) Don’t strangle the baby before it’s born
The random serendipitous nature of innovation is what usually freaks out anyone whose job it is to stare at a spreadsheet and far too often the rigid controls applied to established product lines and businesses are hurriedly applied to things that are only half-baked and with devastating consequences. The planning, budgeting and reviews just end up strangling the life out of any innovation efforts. Here different approaches need to be put into place and rather than focusing on how much the idea will make when launched, focus efforts on understanding who will want it, why, for what, how often etc. A detailed understanding of the insights to consumers or customers not only benefit the development process, but also highlight mismatches early on.

5) It takes effort to develop an idea, but it takes courage to change it once it has been defined.
It’s hard to get things right the first time, particularly if you are truly trailblazing in a new field. Rather than let this get you down, plan to test things often and with real users – why not involve your potential users in developing the idea, this way you are making sure things don’t get lost in Chinese whispers, but stay customer-focused at all times. Moreover, on another level, companies need to encourage employees to challenge the status quo, if people are rewarded simply for doing what they committed to do, rather than acting as circumstances would suggest, you end up creating a band of yes-men rather than budding entrepreneurs.

6) Lay off the financials, lay on the love instead
Interpersonal skills, connections, sharing the love – whatever you call it, it is what makes companies go around. Albeit loosening the financial measures on innovation, companies should absolutely demand that interpersonal connections between innovation and the rest of the business are there. Innovation is a shared responsibility!

7) Communicate don’t procrastinate
The temptation is always to stick the boffins together and assume that as long as they knock their heads together something bankable will emerge. The trouble is that experts and specialists in narrow fields aren’t always the natural connectors and communicators, patient and willing to explain in lay-man’s terms what the latest great invention is all about. Collaboration is a great lever and connectors are great at unleashing this, so never set up innovation without someone like this on-board. They are worth their gold in building support, connections for the team, bringing people on-board, mobilising help, input and ensuring that there is broad buy-in for the innovation. Moreover, they are great at keeping the team together, it is hard to innovate if no one’s in for the long haul, building trust and team spirit takes time and communication.

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4 comments

  1. All of us are less smart than any of us?
    While it is very important to involve as many people in innovation as you can, I’ve often seen that the ‘innovation’ of a group is way worse than the ideas of each individual separately. Trying to achieve consensus sometimes leads to combined solutions, that have none of the real advantages of the individual solutions but all/a lot of the disadvantages of the separate solutions.
    It’s important to have many people interact in brainstorm/innovative sessions to generate and test ideas. But after that someone with great insight/experience/gut feeling has to make a decision, in order to avoid those kind of solutions that have been reached ‘democratically’ but have a devastating impact on the product.

  2. Great post, C.
    Yes, there’s lots of examples of how together we are smarter – both as a collective and as individuals (though we can also be stupid, too). Brainjuicer (www.brainjuicer.com) have taken the Decision Markets technique mentioned in (amongst other things) The Wisdom of Crowds and turned into a new product development research methodology. John Kearon a very nice man – contact him if you want to know more.
    Also, there’ a great story in Howard Schultz’s story of Starbucks which supports your point on multi-dimensional innovation: when coffee prices went through the roof in the early 1990’s, Starbucks got through it (despite a mauling of their shareprice by Wall street) by engaging the entire company in finding ways to improve what they did, to iron out inefficiencies and stale practices. This in itself, according to HS, allowed the company to go well beyond facing down the problem but actually come out stronger than it would otherwise have been.
    In addition, Mckinsey have done some good stuff on “innovation” or “creative networks” and how to manage them. http://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/article_abstract.aspx?ar=1766. In particular, this work goes a long way to flesh out the previous comment. As ever, the answer is “yes, but”.

  3. Good point. However – rather than moan I did want to make this a constructive post so if none of these things happen then consider the inaction on the point a SIN.. make sense? Hope so.

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