Innovation is one of the most popular topics in the world these days, with new books and articles on the subject appearing almost daily. (For example, there are over 70,000 book listings about innovation in Amazon). The problem is that nobody quite knows what the word actually means. Instead we’ve gotten tangled up in all of the variations, nuances, tools, techniques, models, frameworks, and paradigms of innovation. So what was once a simple concept – the idea of systematically finding, encouraging, and implementing new ideas – has become horribly complex. Unfortunately, by complexifying innovation, we’ve probably started to kill it.
To reverse this trend, we need to simplify how we approach innovation – by better defining what it is (and isn’t), what it takes to carry it out, and what is needed to enable truly new thinking to thrive. Here are some thoughts about how:
First, avoid innovation creep. The starting point for simplifying innovation is to refocus on its most basic dictionary definition: “the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods.” One of the ways that we’ve bollixed up innovation is by letting almost any kind of change fall under the innovation umbrella, whether it is a new wrinkle in packaging, a small process improvement, or an add-on service. These are all good things, but they should be part of the normal course of business and the drive for continuous improvement. Innovation on the other hand, needs to be truly new, discontinuous, disruptive, and value creating. So let’s stop putting small “operational,” “incremental,” and “adjacent” improvements under the innovation umbrella.
Second, demystify the process. Having a clear path to new ideas is what helps make innovation work. Companies that are good at innovation – such as Intuit, 3M, and Google – tend to do the same few things:
- They continuously generate a lot of ideas based on input from internal and external sources (ideation).
- They develop the few ideas that have the potential to solve problems for customers and be commercially viable (selection and design).
- They quickly develop prototypes and models that can be tested both in the laboratories and with customers (rapid experimentation).
- They iteratively refine the innovations, and make decisions about whether to fail or scale, based on pilots and additional tests (incubation).
There are variations on these activities, and lots of specific tools that can be utilized, but the basic steps are pretty similar. In fact, if you look at the hundreds of start-up courses that have sprouted at business schools, innovation centers, and research labs, they all have the same basic flow. Unfortunately, in the rush to capitalize on the current interest in innovation, consultants and academics have created all sorts of esoteric language and secret hand signals that make the process more complicated than it needs to be. That doesn’t mean that innovation is easy – just that it doesn’t have to be a black box that can only be unlocked by a wizard or guru.
Third, be clear about how managers can best enable a culture of innovative thinking. Again, the key ingredients are straightforward: Robust and regular interaction between people from different areas (e.g. marketing and engineering); support and encouragement for internal entrepreneurs (including giving them some amounts of time and freedom); recognition and rewards both for people who succeed at innovation and those who fail smart; and targeted investments for projects that warrant further exploration. These aren’t necessarily easy steps, and may be foreign to many companies, but they also don’t require a wholesale revamping of the corporate culture, a mythical CEO, or relocation to Silicon Valley.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, most established firms have reduced costs, focused their resources, and become more lean and efficient. Now, however, they face the challenge of how to grow – which will require the development and implementation of truly innovative products, services, and business models. Making that happen might be hard work, but that doesn’t mean innovation has to become so complex.
Ron Ashkenas' blog post on Forbes. Join the discussion.