9 Paths to Innovation – What got you here, won’t get you there.

by James on April 29, 2009

Having an IdeaThe rules have changed. Now this isn’t news. The rules have always been changing. What’s really changed is the velocity. So don’t wait, now is the time to consider how your business must change, now is the time to explore your options, now is the time to think about business innovation.

Easy to say harder to do.

Business innovation is tricky. Most innovation doesn’t come as an epiphany in the shower. Sometimes, but not very often. You can’t just order up a batch.

“Have procurement source a gross of innovation please. We need it here next week.”

It comes after repeated attempts, mistakes, missteps, and assorted explorations.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Thomas Edison

Business innovation means change and change is hard. It’s risky. What if it doesn’t work? We resist change. The resistance might be overt or, more likely, covert, but it’s real. Stop it. Make a choice. Accept that your business must change, that you must change. Then do something. To find new ways to do things, to find business innovation, you must participate.

Here are 9 paths to innovation, 9 Hip Shots to help get you started.

Hip Shots

  1. Write it down. It’s easy to see the innovation opportunities in someone else’s business?  Do this for your business. Take note of how you fill your day. Document your processes. Think about how your customers use your products, how they use your competitor’s products. Explore your business. Question everything. Write it down. Putting your observations on paper allows you to look at them with fresh eyes. It’s no longer about your business or about you, it’s about what’s on the piece of paper. New ideas will flow.
  2. Step outside. Hire an outsider to bring fresh perspective. Hire a creative consultant to facilitate business innovation. They aren’t vested in your past. They aren’t caught up in the day-to-day tasks of running your business. If they’re any good, they are vested in your future. A consultant will challenge your assumptions, question why your business is the way it is, wonder about missed opportunities, look at your offer relative to your customers’ needs and your competition and give you brutally honest feedback. Their fresh eyes will help you see what’s possible rather than what needs to be done.
  3. Step inside. Talk to junior employees and operations personnel. It will take time for them to open up, especially if they haven’t every spoken with you, which is of course another “opportunity,” but eventually they will provide insights into your business and your customers that are invaluable. Pay attention and don’t judge. Carefully probe for the story behind the story. Ask “why” at least five times to get to root causes. Their insights can drive innovation that’s firmly rooted in the realities of your business.
  4. Step way outside. Another source for innovative solution is what I call, “far out planning.” Determine the most ridiculous, unattainable, impossible solution you can for the question at hand. And then fix it. Dissect your impossible solution to identify the parts that won’t work. Fix those pieces. Bring the solution back to the problem. You will find yourself in a place that would be impossible to find by following a linear path.
  5. Ask the uninvolved. Your best source for business innovation isn’t within your company’s walls. Your R&D department doesn’t have the answer. Marketing doesn’t know either. They are too close to the business. They can certainly find incremental solutions, they can calculate 1 + 1 and get 2 but for the leap, for 1 + 1 = 3 or 5, you need to involve the uninvolved. Talk to scientists in unrelated fields. Ask them how they see the problem. Ask an architect what they would do. Ask your wife, your brother, get the uninvolved involved in your problem and you will see it from new angles, which will lead to new solutions.
  6. Ask the very involved. Take your team to an AIG-style off-site meeting. Well, perhaps that’s not such a good idea, but get them out of the office. Go to an art gallery or the zoo. Take them someplace where the stimulation is distinctly different from the day-to-day, and where the team can mix and conversation can flourish. The foreign environment gives them permission to think differently, it puts their superior understanding of the business to one side so it won’t get in the way of insight. It allows them to explore the problem from new perspectives. This is another place where the injection of a creative consultant can help.
  7. Stop aiming, fail a little. One of the biggest obstacles to innovation is the finance department. Their job, and it’s a very important one, is to keep the business on the financial straight and narrow. Unfortunately this is the antithesis of what’s required for innovation. Great innovation comes from a willingness to fail. The trick is to isolate the pain. Build an innovation budget into your financial plan. Why not? The market has already built innovation into your valuation. MVC International reports that intangible value is now 60% to 80% of total Market Capitalization even among capital intensive sectors such as Energy, Telecom, and Utilities.
  8. Find new boxes and ribbons. The overnight success, that was two years in the making, required patience and perseverance. Being innovative is relatively easy. Selling innovation is very hard. People resist change. Businesses, which are collections of people, are doubly resistant to change. Pitch your idea. When they don’t get it, put a new box around the idea and pitch it again. Change the color and pitch it again. Add a ribbon to the box and have another go. Be confident. Your idea solves a problem that needs solving. Keep at it until the business sees what you see.
  9. Beg for forgiveness. Your boss doesn’t put obstacles in your path deliberately, generally, but it’s unlikely their incentive is tied to change. Their perspective, their vested interest, is usually tied to the past. Don’t ask for permission. Have faith in what you are doing, and just do it. Be sensible, but keep at it. And if you’re a boss, and you suspect there is something going on, make the effort to stay out of the way. Employees willing to risk being innovative are rare and very valuable. Don’t stifle them. Remember, what got you here won’t get you there.

Have any of these approaches to business innovation worked for you? Tell us about it in the comments.

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