With the threat of disruption ever present businesses are being told to innovate or die. People from all levels of business acumen are trying to innovate; great ideas are had, people try new things or approach situations differently. After brainstorming a few ideas people relax and feel like they have successfully innovated. Ticked that box, back to my normal job. Yet from the outside nothing looks like it has changed. What happened? What went wrong? What even is innovation?
I consider myself an innovator in my work. I see a problem or opportunity, think of a solution and implement it. I'm lucky in that I'm a marketer but also a web developer, so where one marketing person would see a problem I see a solution I know how to approach either with technology or process. Below are a few of my thoughts on innovation from things I've personally learned, things I've observed, things I've read and things I heard from speaking to friends and colleagues.
Innovation vs ideas
People confuse idea generation with innovation. Everybody knows a guy who said that he/she thought of "thing x" before "company y" made it a thing. I've met a few people who have had the idea for Ebay before Ebay was created. They didn't do it make it though, Ebay or "company y" did. Execution is the difference between innovation and ideas. Anyone can have ideas, actually making them into something is the innovative part.
Do not get fooled into thinking idea generation is innovation. It is only the first step.
There is this perception that in order to be innovative you need to come up with tons of crazy ideas. Innovative ideas that are out of the box, new, different and exciting. We are being told to dream big, dream the impossible! Be a startup inside an established business. The unsaid thought here is that nothing simple could ever be innovative.
Generally bigger ideas will have a bigger potential return. Building a new platform could potentially make more revenue for a business than removing a field from a form or making their website faster. However when execution is factored in - time, cost, resources and complexity - the platform becomes far less attractive.
Innovation can be simple, it can be small and it can sound boring.
Innovation isn't technology
People discount themselves from being able to be innovative because they are not tech savvy, they are not developers/engineers or don't have the engineering resource. This is a poor excuse.
The start-up culture of Silicon Valley has done awesome things for the world. It is being seen as the pinnacle of innovation. The problem here is that people think that the innovation is tied to the technology, however this is not true. Technology does play a big part, however technology for technology sake is art, not innovation. It is the idea, the purpose, the problem that is meant to solve is why the technology piece is innovative. Silicon Valley is not afraid to challenge the status quo, this is what innovation is. Technology is just the outworking of it.
It is easy to feel like you can't innovate because you are technologically savvy, this isn't true. Don't believe it.
The pressure to innovate
Sadly, the pressure to innovate can cause a sequence of events to occur. People are told to be innovative so they think up crazy ideas, often way outside their expertise. The crazy ideas are either too crazy or not the right idea and pushed aside. If one of the ideas is lucky enough to be deemed suitable it is then thrust upon an unsuspecting victim from another department who then says all the reasons as to why the idea sucks, it can't be done or will cost more money than it is worth. The idea then dies and the thinker of the idea feels discouraged. If the idea recipient does take up the challenge it is normally at the detriment of their other work and the idea is never eventuated to its full potential.
After this cycle people either feel dejected as their ideas didn't make it so why bother or angry with the implementing team that have been given a horrible brief with no resources. The 'innovators' go back to their normal jobs jaded and cynical of any future attempts to be innovative. Thus concludes a successful innovation session.
I sound cynical at the end of the previous paragraph, however I think this is a too common case in larger organisations. People work the best when they know the why behind the work. How are you meant to create buy-in when seemingly weird projects a spun up for no obvious reason?
If there is pressure to innovate but only one idea can be actioned, be transparent on the method of how that idea is selected.
A lack of ideas
Whilst some businesses have no problems with idea generation others struggle. I personally don't think it is a lack of ideas that is a problem but a lack of willingness to share them. If this is your business find a few very new staff members and ask them if they have any ideas and then find a tenured staff member. New people a generally much more open to sharing ideas as they haven't had the past experience in the business of seeing good ideas fall flat and bad ones being pushed by Hippos.
Creativity is very personal and it can be quite a big deal for someone to share an idea of theirs. It is not encouraging seeing other ideas fall flat so some people will sit on them privately rather than seeing them die in public.
Idea generation is a cultural part of an organisation and like all culture it needs to be encouraged and fostered. Find the few people will to share their thoughts, implement them and make a big deal out of it. This will encourage other people to share theirs.
Once someone sees someone else's ideas regularly grow wings they will want to see theirs grow wings too.
Structure your ideation
What happens is that when people are told to be innovative, ideas are generated. Ideas come thick and fast. Think of a firehose being turned on, water pours out. Everybody has ideas and if they say they have none it is because they don't want to share them. Ideas then get put on a list and one gets pulled out either magically, mysteriously or by the will of a higher power. There is generally very little transparency as to how the idea became the chosen one.
This ideation step generally has no structure, or if it does it is quite basic and consists of an excel list of innovation ideas that won't ever see the light of day again. Ideation needs a process to be done well. There is an impression that innovation is spontaneous, organic and chaotic. Ideation isn't technically innovating and there is still pressure to conform to some set of values.
Structure and process with ideation is critical. Having a transparent process to move an idea from a post-it note to being implemented is of the utmost importance, not only in actually getting the thing done but in building an innovative culture.
Be transparent about why a particular idea is chosen to be pursued. Consensus here will lead to better innovation in the future.
Start with your own domain
You should know your area of work the best. You should be able to see opportunities and improvements in it more easily than anybody else. If you are stuck start asking why you do things the way you do. Ask yourself why five times and you will find an answer. If you ever come to 'because that is the way we have always done it' you need to immediately evaluate whatever you are doing.
Master your own domain, it is your responsibility to make that the best it can be.
Take time to understand context
We can have ideas and innovate in parts of the business outside our role or domain and they could be beneficial. I'm sure I could think of innovative ways people could do HR or finance, however I lack any context. Context provides the parameters in which you can be innovative, without these any idea seems like a new and amazing idea. You can walk into another department or over to another colleague and tell them all the great ways you can do their job better, however more often than not this is a sure case for conflict.
Whether what you think is valid or not doesn't matter, you need to take the time understand the context (and the individuals involved) before telling them to innovate in your particular way.
Last year I read How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg (it is a seriously good read, I highly recommend it). At the time I was struggling with how to ideate and innovate corporately well. I found the following quote in the book and immediately sent it to my manager
"Innovative people do not need to be told to do it, they need to be allowed to do it."
Permission is what is needed to start innovative things. Permission to spend some time on something that doesn't have a guaranteed return. Permission to take a risk. Permission to fail.
With disruption being the thing on every business person's mind when we think and talk innovation the expected scale is huge. You need a giant innovation in order to achieve anything worth while. I totally disagree with this. Whilst a giant idea implemented well can change the world I think many smaller ones can have the same impact.
We paralyse ourselves by only wanting to talk about big ideas. We waste time deciding on which big thing to pursue. Why not do lots of little things? What if you could implement 10 small amazing innovations in the time it took you to convince your leadership to start work on one giant one? Implementing things builds momentum and as Daniel Flynn aptly put in his book Chapter One - "Momentum is everything". If small ideas a regularly getting implemented it will help build a culture of innovation. A culture of innovation will propel you forward as an organisation just as much if not more than a giant idea could.
Scale isn't a prerequisite for innovation. Small things can count in big ways.
Solve the next big problem, not find the next big idea
Too often we hear people speak of finding the next billion dollar idea. The idea isn't going to do anything in itself. It isn't the idea that sells the product. It is the problem the idea solves or the need that it meets that sells the idea. Solve your customer's problems. Find their pain points and offer a solution. It is that simple. It is too easy to focus on cool technology, a sweet feature you've seen your competitor implement or just on internal wants but it is all irrelevant if you aren't solving your customer's problems. If there is no audience for your thing you will never sell it, you will never make a profit and you will go broke. If your idea does not address a problem your customers are having or address a business need it is not a good idea.
Know your customers. Know their pain points, know their needs. Provide solutions. If you do this, and you do this in innovative ways you will win at business.
The last point is the most important of all. Solve the next big problem. If that is the one thing you take away from this article it was worth reading.