With the economy experiencing dark times, a lot of companies are focused on innovation right now. Everyone wants to know where that next “Big Idea” is and how to make it happen. I wish I could tell you there was a quick way, some software, or even better, a RainMaker who could come in and make it all happen regardless of whatever the rest of your company is doing. Alas, capitalizing on innovation takes more than just funding and a dedicated project team, especially if it is something you want to do more than once or twice. What sustainable innovation really takes is the right processes bolstered by the right culture. My recent experience at the World Innovation Forum confirmed and supported what I have been teaching and facilitating about finding opportunities to innovate. It requires different types of thinking, searching for the “job to be done” as Clayton Christensen put it, rather than the typical customer-specific segmentation. I’ve actually been using his “milkshake” story for a couple of years now – I think I got it from an old HBR article. Diversity of thought and experience is crucial as well. Most new innovations come from making connections between disparate ideas and industries. Take for example biomimicry, the study of nature to find new products. That’s how the idea for Velcro came about – burrs sticking to someone’s clothes. There’s even a non-glue adhesive being made after studying how Gecko’s walk up walls. Opportunities to “Get Sparked” are often right in front of your eyes if you care to notice them. Turning on the right filters, though, can take effort.
Once you have a lot of ideas the next challenging step is getting out of what I call “Shiny Penny Hell(TM)”. This requires separating the ideas from the opportunities and then ranking them according to some criteria you’ve established for moving forward. We spend 6 months doing this in our ACTiVATE class but the time this takes depends on the resources available to focus on it.
Armed with a set of whittled-down opportunities, it is time to “Get Real” by analyzing feasibility. It is an iterative process that can go as shallow or as deep as you need to answer the question “Will this work?” according to your criteria. The other equally crucial part of this phase is to make the plan for moving forward – the how. For external innovations, how will you reach the market and convince them to buy your product or service, how will you challenge the competition, how will obtain the resources necessary (financial, people, materials), etc. Not being willing to fail at this stage is a real innovation killer because it means that you’re not taking risks. Taking the time to evaluate feasibility thoroughly provides the opportunity to Fail Fast, especially good when high costs are involved.
Once opportunities have been deemed feasible and an implementation plan devised, it’s time to “Get Results.” Unfortunately this is the point at which most people and companies fall flat. It requires that accountability and transparency be well defined with metrics that can indicate when adjustments need to be made. A willingness to change course or to kill the project is also required, though a thorough evaluation of your measurements to make sure they’re not “innovation killers” is also key.
Does this sound easy? For some, maybe. Innovation requires specific elements of an entrepreneurial culture as the soil in which opportunities can grow into cash. Without the right foundation you might get lucky, but true innovation is hard to sustain without the right environment in which to grow and flourish (and sometimes even fail!).
In forward-thinking companies you’ve worked with, created, or led, what have you seen as the crucial elements of the innovation soil?