Innovation is a Decision
It’s hard to blame the business world for latching onto the word. It’s been so elevated, placed on such a towering pedestal and deitized that nobody can really blame us. In the Digital / Content / Information age, “Innovation” has become the Holy Grail of inner office communique. You almost get the feeling Indiana Jones is going to come whipping into view to snatch up the very thing we’ve all been searching for.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making light of innovation. I may mock the archaeological-like quest for it, but innovation itself? I embrace it like Indy holds his whip. But enough of that.
Let me explain.
First, let’s quickly define this thing is that we’re all trying to get our hands on. Innovation is a…decision. It is NOT inspiration. One of my favorite writers, Hubert Selby Jr. once said that the most important thing for a writer to do is show up. As most writers can attest, waiting around for inspiration to strike is the best way to keep from writing something.
For a business that wants to become innovative, this is the crucial starting point. Deceptive in its simplicity, “Showing Up” means that the time for action is now while also implying a level of consistency that is critical to innovation. It is also one of the single biggest reasons businesses fail to move their innovation plans beyond the weekly organizational meeting.
A quick story: About five years ago I was asked to participate in an “Innovation Week” program for a business in the midst of significant industry change. This five day corporate event was designed to bring together some good creative minds for collaboration (which I love), in developing “Big, Bold, Audacious Ideas” (which I don’t love, more on this later). During the session we were instructed that nothing was off-limits. No “Sacred Cows”. And, following a week of brainstorms and presentations the company Green Lit one of our ideas and two years later launched it, generating around $200,000 in revenue within the first few months. All-in-all, not a bad result for a five day effort, right?
Let’s look at some of the positives aspects of this process. What are some of the things that Innovation Week did well?
- Acknowledged the need to change.
- Collaboration: A wonderful thing, especially cross-departmental collaboration
- There was a commitment by senior leadership to implement our Big, Bold, Audacious ideas.
- The final result: obviously, its good to develop a new revenue stream that works.
We celebrated but it was in the years that followed Innovation Week that I began to realize how limiting our approach and process had been and just how much opportunity had been missed.
The first problem was the timing. For a company to truly commit to innovating its products or processes, five dedicated days just isn’t enough time. In an age when new, incredibly creative ideas and technologies flood the marketplace every day, innovation must be a daily effort.
Second was the idea that innovation must be a “Big, Audacious Idea”. It needn’t be. Remember, innovation is a decision. It is simply making the choice to change something, any small thing that will improve yourself, your business or the lives of your customers. In this sense, new innovations could become a weekly reality and in fact, for any of us to keep up, they probably need to.
Execution on the “Big Idea” was the final problem. Two years is just too much time from concept to execution. In 1989 scientist Alan Kay stated that innovation takes 10 years from conceptualization to the showroom. Alan Kay was an incredibly smart guy, but this figure is laughable today. And in the Myspace-becomes-Facebook-becomes-Pinterest-age, two years isn’t much better.
Innovation today should be a simple process of Observation, Discussion, Implementation and Measurement.
It needn’t be big and it needn’t be audacious. Every staff member should be charged with driving innovative ideas and processes everyday. It must be foundational. From staffers, it takes an attitude of willingness to collaborate and participate in fulfillment. And because a team will always mirror its leadership, it requires that management demonstrate, by example, the importance of innovation daily.
If innovation is the Holy Grail, Indiana Jones shouldn’t want anything to do with it. It should be so commonplace, so routine, so plain and ordinary that he’ll just move on to the next adventure. Does that mean innovation is easy? Not necessarily. But it means that it doesn’t have to be hard either.
Oh, and incidentally, when this happens, when the innovation process becomes macro, a weird thing suddenly may begin to happen: the “Big, Bold, Audacious Ideas” just might magically begin to materialize.