Innovation is one of the most overused words in business.
It is usually uttered by dismayed executives who realize that nothing interesting is being suggested.
Innovation is really just a lazy euphemism for anyone having a decent idea.
The purpose of an innovation strategy is to create the conditions in which smart new ideas can be generated in an orderly fashion.
In other words, it doesn’t work if random ideas are popping up all over the place all year.
There needs to be a systematic approach, so that ideas are harnessed in a manageable way, ensuring that the right number of excellent initiatives are dreamed up and enacted effectively.
You will often see it said that innovation is the lifeblood of successful business.
That’s not strictly true.
It is possible to do straightforward things well and consistently – with a few updates.
An analysis of nearly 18 million scientific papers discovered that 90% of what was in these apparently ‘creative’ manuscripts was actually old stuff recycled.
So innovation is effectively 90% known material with a 10% interesting twist provided by new developments or perspectives.
The Creativity plus Commerce Crossroads
Innovation must build ideas at the crossroads of creativity and commerce, according to Mark Payne, founder of the innovation company Fahrenheit 212.
The failure rates of most innovation are absurdly high, culminating in unicorns – visions that are lovely to think about but only doable and profitable in some imaginary world.
What is needed is a money and magic approach, sometimes called how and wow.
By the midpoint, they all solve a customer need.
But they should only be implemented if they also solve a business need for the company.
The moral is: don't suspend commercial questions early in the process.
This two sided thinking (customer need and company need) must be present from day one, because the best results appear at the crossroads of these two requirements.
Another crossroads comes at the intersection of near-term ROI (return on investment), low risk tolerance, big growth goals and tight resource constraints.
Big doesn’t always have to mean risky, slow and expensive.
So don’t buy into the myth that creativity is most effective when it’s unencumbered by practical imperatives.
That’s not true.
Smart Strategy Warning!
Creativity in isolation does not form the basis of a decent innovation strategy.
It has to be applied to a true commercial need.
So having random ideas without understanding the real commercial issues doesn’t get you anywhere.
For a truly effective innovation approach, get the practical people working at the beginning with the ideas people.
This will save you generating scores of idealistic concepts that can’t be executed.
Sit and Audit
For a truly effective innovation strategy, try using what Goldenberg and Boyd call Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT).
This involves: Subtraction: list the product’s main components; remove one essential component, partially or fully; visualize the result (no matter how strange); consider the potential benefits or new markets for the new version.
Division: list the components; make copies of a component; change one of the essential attributes of the copy; visualize and look for benefits.
Multiplication: list the components; make copies of a component; change one of the essential attributes of the copy; visualize and look for benefits
Task unification: give a component an additional task, either internal or external; look for new benefits.
The benefits of this approach can be huge.
Subtracting can make products and services so much simpler.
Division can do so, as well, and can lead to new products with different purposes.
Multiplication and unification can lead to variety or to multipurpose products or services.
Another helpful approach is to conduct a beliefs audit:
What are the inherent assumptions in your day-to-day work?
What has your organization never feared that could destroy it?
If your company didn’t exist, what difference would it make?
These are penetrating questions that challenge the norm and can lead to fresh thinking.
It pays to SIT and audit what is currently happening.
Doing so could certainly lead to an interesting innovation.
Smart Strategy Warning!
Too much innovation strategy takes a lot for granted.
It’s time to doubt what you assume to be the case.
To get the process rolling, conduct a beliefs audit.
Ask the three questions above and provide blunt answers.
Be brutal, and don’t just toe the company line – the thinking may be outdated.