Do you know why your business needs to innovate?

When I run innovation sessions for clients, we often have to spend a good bit of time up front talking about the objectives for the sessions – ‘what’ is it that we are trying to innovate.  Sangeet Choudary had a good article in Wired earlier this year where he talked about the differences between a “stuff” approach, a “optimization” approach, and a “platform” approach, or as he puts it:

  1. The “stuff” approach: How can we create more stuff whenever the problem crops up?
  2. The “optimization” approach: How can we better distribute the stuff already created to minimize waste?
  3. The “platform” approach: How can we redefine stuff and find new ways of solving the same problem?

He has some great examples of the differences between the three, pointing out that the “platform” approach is fairly new and depends on the technology enabling resources we now have at our disposal. One that everyone can relate to is hotel accommodations – big chains take the “stuff” approach to innovation by continually building out new and different types of properties, companies like Kayak make the finding of accommodations more efficient and accessible – the “optimizing” approach to innovation, and companies like AirBnB redefine the platform through which travelers understand and access accommodations altogether – the platform approach.

Check it out, and the next time someone says “we need to be more innovative around here”, stop and dive into what they mean by innovation. It might lead to some productive insights about how to progress your organization’s strategy and objectives.



What’s GenX’s Winnebego?

When we think about the future of work, we think about how things are changing.  New generations entering, older generations exiting, new types of work becoming the norm, with older patterns and habits dying off – some going easily and others fighting to stay relevant.

When I think about what’s changing, I think in terms of environmental, economic, organizational, and individual changes that drive industries, markets, and the workforce. In the 60s, the American desire to get on the road and explore, coupled with inexpensive materials and fuel, gave birth to entire new industries, including the Recreational Vehicle, KOA parks, and chain restaurants. Baby Boomers gave us the Winnebego and its related support industries, and now, as I look into the future, I wonder what will happen as mid-life GenXers start to  exert generational influence and character while also navigating between the needs of longer living (and working) Baby Boomers and Millennials whose expectations of work and reward are so different from traditional definitions.

Perhaps we already have our Winnebego, and it is the iPad and all of its related industries that didn’t exist a scant 10 years ago. App Stores, wireless speakers, camera phones, video chat, text platforms, social media – these are all feeding a generational desire to connect in ways that were pure fantasy not so long ago.  I’m typing this post on a tablet, in my kitchen, without a cord in sight, while listening to a streaming radio program and texting with my nephew and finishing up some work for tomorrow.  Perhaps that is our Winnebego – the portability and integration of home life, recreation, work, and play. Or maybe we haven’t figured it out yet, we’ll have to see.

Where innovation thrives

Innovation thrives in environments that allow for and nurture curiosity. Curiosity is a critical ingredient for any culture of innovation, and it includes being curious about what your neighbor does, what another department does, what your clients do, and what’s going on in the world.

Being curious takes time out of the day to explore, to ask questions, to understand things that are foreign. If you are in a position to do so, are you providing the time and space for your employees to be curious? Are you on the lookout for those people who are naturally curious, and are you fostering that in them? Are you personally figuring out how to make the time to understand things that are outside of your immediate perspective? We are all accountable for being personally curious, and those of us who have the opportunity to nurture that in others need to do so whenever possible.

Curiosity = innovation. It’s that simple.

The tragicomedy of an innovation lifecycle

Innovation, going back to Terwiesch and Ulrich (2010), is “a new match between a need and a solution”. In ways that are often comical to the casual observer and tragic to the people caught in the middle of it, that match often requires an onerous “stage gate” process through which the life and spirit of the innovation is sucked dry. Management types will argue vehemently in favor of these processes, pointing to failures avoided, disaster averted. They do have some merit, especially when they are used to help build out and encourage an idea forward. But too often they are focused on proving why something won’t work, rather than why it will, and humans have an uncanny knack for proving themselves right.  If you have an innovation lifecycle, re-examine it for purpose. Is it structured for success or failure?  Is it designed to “stress test” or to “reinforce” an idea in the early stages? If you move too quickly to the stress test, you run the risk of shutting down great ideas before they have time to stabilize and grow.

Tom Fishburne did the process justice with his cartoon, licensed to share below:

innovation cartoon fishburne

What will we invent?

A friend asked me yesterday what I thought would be the lasting inventions of our generation – what would bump something like the Alphabet off of the to 50 greatest breakthroughs of all time?  I was surprised that what came to mind for me were brands more than products.  Google, Facebook, Twitter, even Apple, invented in the 70s, was reinvented in the 2000s.  I wonder if that’s a growing trend – that brands themselves are the innovation, and the products they spin out are cloaked in the mystic of the brand in ways that make them indistinguishable.  We won’t know for another 50 years or so, but it will be interesting to see what happens then!

Innovation throughout the ages

Breakthrough ideas have been happening since long before the first management book was written. In fact, the alphabet used to write said books, as well as the printing processes, fonts, and technology used to produce them, are all the result of a breakthrough idea making it to a viable market.

The Atlantic recently published the 50 greatest breakthroughs of all time , an article by Jim Fallows that looks at all of the ways in which our worlds have been shaped by invention. To me, it was fascinating to realize that of the 50, which range from the alphabet to paper money to steam combustion engines to television, none of them came about in the last 35 years. In fact, only three of them are attributed to the 60s and 70s (the Internet, the personal computer, and the birth control pill).  Maybe that’s just context – in another 50 years, some of our generation’s greatest thinking will bump something off the list – one can only hope!  But still, it makes me wonder, have we muscled innovation out of the workplace because a fanatical focus on efficiency and process?

Defining Creativity and Innovation

Creativity and innovation both sound pretty good, and a lot of people report that their work environments are sadly lacking in both.  I think in truth, most people use the terms interchangeably, and that’s completely fine.

There are, however, some different definitions that might be interesting to consider.  In management science, which is behind most MBA programs, talk about creativity, they are generally referring to the right-brain, colors, shapes, music types – artists, musicians, and let’s face it, those people over in Marketing…..   Creativity is about an environment that fosters the right brain thinkers and is generally more open, fluid, and colorful than most traditional workplaces.  Innovation is more about process – taking creative ideas and putting them into action. Terwiesch and Ulrich (2010) define innovation as “a new match between a need and a solution” – it is about the matchmaking more than about the dreaming up of something new and different.

In social science, the definitions are actually often the opposite. Innovation is about the spark, the idea generation, and creativity is about how you take that idea and put it into action. Maybe that’s because without the discipline of management, it seems like only someone who is very creative could figure out how to turn something into action.

However you define it, there are two important forces at play – one that opens the brain up to thinking differently about the world and can conceive of new patterns, relationships, and thoughts, and another that matches those dreams to the reality of the workplace and how to effect change for employees or customers by delivering on an idea. Over the next week or so, we’ll talk about both, using the traditional management science perspective that creativity is about ‘the spark’ and innovation is about ‘the action’.

Creativity and Innovation at Work – Is that really what you want?

I’ve talked here before about how many people claim to want creativity and innovation in the workplace, when what they really want are the outcomes – clever, satisfying solutions to persistent problems or cool new gadgets to sell.  I do believe that creativity and innovation have a place in the workplace, but we need to be thoughtful about how we create a place where that can happen.

I’ll be presenting at the St. Louis Business Journal’s annual conference at the end of the month on this topic, and I thought I’d start a few posts about it to get the thinking going. Stay tuned for more!