Being Innovative Isn’t That Difficult
Why is it that some of the biggest innovations seem to come from visionary entrepreneurs rather than major corporations? With their teams of designers and engineers, I’d think they would produce more than a series of product upgrades. One of the most important elements to success in today’s competitive global economy is inventiveness – providing things the others don’t. Creating true innovation, not just once but repeatedly requires a commitment to change as part of a plan for long-term success.
A productive corporation looks for a new direction in all of its processes and at every level. In order to have optimal value, every change needs to be supported across the enterprise, from R&D to shipping. But sustaining creativity as a process in itself, rather than a minor objective, requires a structured approach that larger corporations may have lost in a bloated corporate bureaucracy and the separation of regions, acquisitions, staff, and so on. In planning for the future in rapidly changing markets and technologies, we should never neglect discovery and creativity, no matter how much revenue is flowing from the last great idea.
The Practice of Creation
Innovation is driven not by that rare flash of genius, but by teams collaborating to share needs, observations, and options concerning complex issues. Enterprises that continually provide innovations share some common traits that bind their people together in productive ways.
Communicating across boundaries – change doesn’t have to spring from analysts and designers. Each employee, manager, and contractor may be able to provide insights that help overcome problems or lead to the next breakthrough. Feedback from vendors, distributors, and especially customers on what they really need should be seen as opportunities for new solutions.
Meeting of disciplines – new visions rarely begin as holy revelations or flow from one specialized team. More often they flow from a discussion between the various disciplines and technologies that make up the corporation. The next advancement in order fulfillment may start as a simple idea that requires IT and warehouse input to become a working model, but also full support from management or it goes nowhere.
Structure business for innovation – I have looked at some big companies to see what they’re doing, but few of them are organized to allow the open exchange of ideas across departments or branches, nor the time and freedom to explore creativity. To allow cross-boundary idea development, more corporations should consider processes that not only allow, but encourage, more collaboration between special skills, management, and coordinated teams as a way of tackling challenges.
In order to bring this new structure to life, enterprises must integrate into their procedures some principles that promote the coordination of management, technology, and business resources. We need leadership empowering these ideas by creating new methods that could possibly combine project management and Agile development, but based on some fundamental practices:
- Encourage staff to pass on good suggestions from any source. Invite comment and listen to what customers, partners, and employees are trying to say
- Document and evaluate who our actual and target customers are, what they like, what they ask for, and why their expectations are not being met
- Organize teams or committees of proven problem-solvers to look into innovations for specific problems, including taking stock of the skills, time, cost, and materials required to move forward
- Support innovative efforts by giving teams the time to progress and the freedom to fail. In fact, it’s far more realistic to create alternative and incremental solutions than to be hoping for a single stroke of genius
- Planning should establish deadlines and milestones that become crucial decision points before spending more time and more money
- Through experimentation, even trial and error, innovative teams can benefit from their failures by refining their own procedures and investigating where things went wrong
- Develop services and products according to customer values and demands, especially pricing, marketability, ease of use, and improving or adding more features.
- Test new concepts and assumptions. Develop prototypes for user testing and listen to customer reaction. We should never commit to an idea that’s still in the test phase, as several more changes may be necessary. Fast failure can lead to quicker re-engineering
- Convene a panel of impartial reviewers for the No/Go final decision. Things can get political with different people pushing their own agendas. Elimination or balance of opposing interests allows upper management to weigh the pros and cons before giving approval, terminating, or re-tooling new products or services
- Prioritization is also needed in a climate of idea development. Innovations that seem remarkable may have little real value to customers and the bottom line. It’s important that there be oversight to identify and put some focus on the most promising proposals, and sweep away the trivial.
I have to admit that these measures don’t guarantee a steady flow of possibilities that will justify the expenses. A company culture of progressive thinking shouldn’t undermine the daily routine of making money. Instead of tying up in-house staff to come up with new solutions, some corporations might be better off looking for proven entrepreneurs and industry marketing gurus. They may offer a fresher point of view than consultants who only lecture, or capable but boring managers who are likely to introduce more controls on what should be a creative process.
When it comes to corporate organization, discipline should focus creative planning on achieving results. Idea development should be a process like any other, subject to the same rules of prioritization, risk assessment, and return on investment. While there is a possibility of revolutionizing an industry – or two, or three – from one good idea, there is a greater potential for slow but certain progress with more creative minds in the mix. Of course, that requires good leadership to work. It seems to me that commercialization is the goal of every business idea. Corporations that can innovate not only encourage innovative new ideas and value them.