How to innovate and why everybody should do it
When you hear the word innovation, what do you think of next? Many conjure up images of “artistic types” huddling together in a start-up incubator, sipping flat whites while pointing at post-its. Or maybe you think the creative director or designer are paid to be creative thinkers – the CEO, Head of IT or Digital Director don’t need to bother. In fact, innovation is for everyone. Not simply because any successful business MUST be innovative to survive, let alone thrive in the world out there, but because creativity and innovation is an inherent trait in us all, like having blue or brown eyes. We were born to innovate – if we weren’t, we’d still be living in caves. For too long the so-called creative types were relegated to the design or marketing department, while the important business decisions were made in the boardroom.
Innovation needs to cross these silos.
Innovation is not just about new technology, although it can be. Digital innovation can be about leveraging new or existing technology, it can be about making the process lean or it can be about product. Yet, at the heart of innovation the question should always be – what does the customer want? New opportunities for innovation open when you move beyond the technical specifications and start the creative problem-solving process with empathy toward your target audience – whether it’s colleagues, clients or consumers. Approaching challenges from a human perspective can yield some of the richest opportunities for innovation and change.
With any Innovation program, there are always three factors to balance. Business (viable), people (desirable), technical (feasible)
The first aspect, feasibility, has to do with technical factors, which was the focus in the early days of Silicon Valley. But “cool tech” alone is not enough to open or disrupt a market, it needs to satisfy a customer need or do a job better than the status quo for it to be successful. Take Google Glass for example. The tech was astonishing and definitely ahead of its time. You can take photos, get directions, augmented reality and more by using your voice and a tiny head-mounted display. However, according to an MIT Technology Review, no one could understand why you’d want to have “that thing” on your face – in the way of normal social interaction. Or maybe it was because people wearing them became known as Glassholes…
Bose’s noise cancelling headphones arguably tapped into another aspect of social interaction – too much social interaction! The technology is also very cool, but more than that – it solved a basic need for peace and quiet in today’s noisy, rushed world and proved to be a huge hit with commuters and students.
A second key element is economic viability or business factors. The technology needs to work, but it also needs to be produced and distributed in an economically viable way. Popular wisdom, amongst venture capitalists, is that money follows ideas. However, those ideas need to fit into a business model that will allow the enterprise to thrive. This is where the inseparable twin of innovation, namely entrepreneurship, takes centre stage to take these ideas to market.
The third and most important factor, desirability, involves people and is about deeply understanding human needs. Beyond observing behaviours and crunching big data lies people’s motivations and core beliefs. Technical and financial expertise are well taught in engineering and business schools and companies everywhere focus their energy on those aspects, so perhaps human needs, motvations, beliefs and problems may offer some of the best opportunities for innovation.
Teaching innovation is about techniques striving to find that sweet spot of feasibility, viability and desirability. Even though every effort is made, Artificial Intelligence is still a long way off from making those unexpected connections that lead to the most exciting ideas and innovation. This is why your best chance to stay ahead of the game is to make it possible for humans in your enterprise to be creative – as they were meant to be.
Here are three things you can do straight away to innovate:
- Encourage a culture of successful failure. Often people are too scared of the consequences of failure, so they never try anything new. The consequence of failure should be learning and subsequent improvement. Fear stagnation, not failure.
- Focus on the problem you are trying to solve. Harvard Professor Theodore Levit famously observed, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” If you only focus on drills (the solution) you lose sight of the problem. Why do you need the hole? What problem would the hole solve?
- Ask questions starting with “why”. A series of why questions can brush past the surface details and get to the heart of the matter. Why does it have to be a hole in the wall? Why is a hole better than strong glue, or is it? The “5 why’s” exercise is a popular method to find the real problem you are trying to solve.