June 21, 2019

Rethinking Innovation

Greg Moyer

Greg Moyer
CMO, Co-Founder/Flow Immersive

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Let's get one thing straight; innovation is the engine of progress.

However, today, the term "innovation" is everywhere -- in magazines, journals, conferences, books, blogs, boardrooms, and news. The more the word is used, the more its meaning becomes diluted. Today innovation is commonly used as a synonym for creativity, ideas, and inventions.

I believe it’s time to refocus and sharpen not just the definition of innovation but how to carry out innovation as a course of action, at least for business and take a critical look at two popular approaches. Business leaders with an eye to the future and armed with a growth mindset have been obsessing about innovation. Many have been wasting time, money, and resources by not thinking about innovation in a way that results in new origination and growth.

Let’s agree on a few definitions. An idea is a formulated thought or opinion.  An invention is the creation of a new, unique, or novel device, method, composition, or process – based on an idea. It may also be a further improvement upon a machine or product or alternate means of achieving a process. Conversely, innovation is an act of implementing an invention or improving a product or process by introducing new ways or ideas. Note the progression from a thought to a thing to the implementation of the thing.

According to the Business Dictionary, innovation is the process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value for which customers will pay.

In her study, "Creativity and Innovation in Organizations," Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile states, “innovation is the successful implementation of creative ideas within an organization.”

I want to take the professor’s definition to the next level: innovation, and especially high-performance innovation is the successful implementation of a worthy invention within an organization – not just the implementation of “creative ideas.”

The order of progression is deliberate. First, there is a creative idea. Then the idea should be transformed into an invention. Next is the implementation of the invention: innovation. Bingo! Within each progression is another progression of steps, but like anything else, innovation is dependent on the quality of what comes before it: garbage in, garbage out.

Innovation begins with an invention that lives at the intersection of being creative and being useful. Most importantly, however, a requisite of innovation is execution.

Leonardo Da Vinci was one of my boyhood idols and still is and by any standard, a creative genius, but he was not a successful innovator. He is credited with 46 paintings considered major works; more than 5,000 pages of illustrated manuscripts; and he conceptualized dozens of potentially useful things from flying machines, scuba gear, and a revolving bridge to a self-propelled car and robotic knight. Note that I said conceptualized — most of his ideas ended with drawings – not many of them resulted in innovations at the time. Most didn't even make it to the point of being inventions.

Like many autodidacts and polymaths, Da Vinci was long on inquisitiveness but short on attention span, and there is a new theory that he might have had ADHD. He had extraordinary powers of observation and a remarkable talent for making connections between different areas of knowledge, a readiness to challenge the status quo, and an uncanny ability to anticipate future discoveries. Though he delivered works for which he was paid, he never realized anything close to financial success. His life yielded an endless succession of untested contraptions, unpublished studies, and unfinished artworks.

Let's not be too critical, however. Da Vinci was a creative genius who didn't have the skill set or a surrounding team of talent and support, not to mention the necessary financial resources to transform most of his ideas and inventions into innovations. He never came close to executing most of them — again, a requirement of innovation.

Having worked with many different tech companies over the past 25 years, some innovative and some not so innovative, I have observed mainly two approaches for business innovation: 

1) “The Playground Approach” and

2) “Optimization”

Both are wrong, in my opinion, and here's why:

The Playground Approach

The Playground Approach relies on randomness like Post-it Notes on the walls. Group or team workshops are initiated too early in the process, resulting in groupthink that homogenizes creative outcomes, and the belief that design is the answer to everything. Some apply the tenets of “design thinking” successfully but others, not so much. You often end up with a whiteboard full of ideas that can’t be implemented or are not credible in advancing the cause of your business.

What you produce is an interesting two-day exercise leading to a beautifully designed Mind Map, PowerPoint deck, or even a video, which ends up in the infinite storage drawer of unused digital media. Applying business value to these almost irrelevant exercises is virtually impossible, so don’t be surprised if most innovation labs based on this approach lose steam and die over the next several years.

Side Bar: A culture of innovation is not created by having cool furniture, beanbag chairs, pool tables, and a smoothie station. Bell Labs didn’t have any of those things and became the most prolific bastion of invention and innovation on the planet and still holds the record for originating inventions.

I remember how exciting it was to go to the large whiteboard with my colleague during the incubator journey of our new startup while our cohorts helped us brainstorm everything from validation to implementation. Each thought triggered a Post-it Note until there were dozens of day-glow stickies everywhere. Fun, yes. Even insightful at times. Constructive for establishing a path of innovation? No, not really. It didn’t take long to realize that most of the thoughts generated were either something we had already considered or not relevant due to lack of context.

Optimization

Even worse is the second approach, optimization, which asserts that moving forward slowly and reducing costs while sustaining a low level of innovation is enough. It’s like changing from PowerPoint to Prezi.

Massive management consulting firms have been built around optimization or at being better at what you already do.

The problem with this optimization cycle, which is continually being fed by the management consulting industry, is while it creates an incremental new value, it doesn’t lead to anything that drastically moves the needle.

Important new outcomes are not created by advancing what you already have or do. A whole new approach is required to create new value.

You can only pursue growth, profitability, and substantial market returns through efficiency for so long, and many CEOs are finding that they have effectively wrung out as much of that as they can. That’s why they are now looking to innovation to be a growth driver boosting the top line through new products, services, and experiences.

Origination-Based Thinking

So, what should forward-thinking business leaders do? They should require an innovation strategy that enables them to have an origination-based approach to innovation. The origination-based approach behaves differently than the optimization approach. It allows you to pull projects that don't pass muster. It will enable you to bring in a lot of different talents, much like an orchestra conductor, to develop a complex idea or invention.

The origination-based approach takes more than just having a fun workshop. It takes a focused, serious approach with a strategy that has different rules, structures, and behaviors that must be acknowledged and embraced to develop a successful system for innovating.

Innovation strategy provides focus to the organization, guidelines, and a common theme or goal. You need to establish targets and present them to drive people's creativity and reward that creativity accordingly.

The CEO or internal innovation champion must take the lead when steering this initiative, creating an organic culture that oozes a structured process for innovating.

Innovation can come from many different directions and needs to thrive holistically and involve the entire company. It must start from the top down, and it works best if it has a track to run on – a structured process.

For this innovation structure to succeed, there needs to be an internal champion, a role preferably played by a C-level executive. The company leadership should define an innovation framework. It's not enough to say, “let's innovate” and hope that innovation will happen by magic or fiat.

This framework should also be openly adopted by the entire corporate leadership structure, including the Board of Directors. It must be something defensible, “ownable,” and designed to leverage the company's assets successfully. It should be anchored to a quantifiable outcome.

Innovations must be implementations of inventions, and all worthy inventions begin with a good idea. Not any idea – a good idea or collection of good ideas. And not any invention – a worthy invention. I think most would agree that ideas are easy to generate; good ideas not so easy, and great ideas are few.

Finally, if an innovation system needs a structured process, so too, do ideas that lead to inventions. Look for announcements of my new book and workshop: “The 7 i's OF INVENTION,” which are the essential components for transforming ideas into inventions grounded in neuroscience, and modeled from the world’s greatest composers, scientists, artists, engineers, and inventors.   

I encourage innovating skills that underpin value origination and not value optimization. Because whether we know it or like it, the age of origination is here.

The winners will be those who see beyond wishes, mantras, and calls to action. The winners will provide the right framework for innovating, creating their origination-based approach.

And if you want to be a creative genius, do I have the model person for you – but if you're going to be a successful innovator, don’t be like Da Vinci.

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