Innovation - activity, tool or competence?
Innovation is, unfortunately, a buzzword, meaning that the user defines the word in his or her own context, and often the hearer defines the word in a different context. We've been told that innovation created the success at Apple, and that innovation is also responsible for many "failures". We've been told there are many innovation tools and techniques - Voice of the Customer, ethnography, idea generation. We've been introduced to innovation management, software to capture and distribute ideas. Open innovation is now in vogue, as a way to gather ideas from customers and partners. I often imagine that the land rush to settle Oklahoma looked a lot like what innovation does in the business world today. Everyone rushing to stake a claim, with little in common.
So, let's answer the titular questions. Yes, innovation is an activity. Any business unit or product group can engage in innovation to create a new product, new service or new business model. Occasional innovation is the most frequently practiced, and one of the most difficult, because when innovation is attempted, it is often in response to a significant new need or gap in offerings. This means that the firm is attempting new techniques (innovation) in the face of significant threats. What do we typically revert to when something precious to us is threatened? Certainty and trusted tools. Trying to innovate occasionally in the face of significant risk or change is akin to placing a novice on the back of a bucking bronco. The ride will be short, painful and the rider is likely to be trampled in the end.
Innovation is a tool, or, more distinctly, a set of tools, each of which can provide tremendous value when used appropriately. I was recently talking to a potential client who described their "front end" as consisting of "voice of the customer". While "voice of the customer" can be a useful tool for customer insights, it is simply one possible tool for customer insight. Further, the "front end" encompasses much more discovery and insight than voice of the customer. Using only one tool or technique is like describing a room while looking through a keyhole. Using only one tool or technique is probably more dangerous than beneficial. Innovation is a collection of tools and techniques. When applied correctly and in the appropriate order, they can create incredible insights. Used poorly or ineffectively, they are no better than guesswork.
Eventually, many organizations discover than innovation should be a core competence. This requires, of course, careful definitions and strategic alignment at the highest reaches of the organization, and a defined set of innovation tools structured in a manner to provide valuable outcomes. It requires people who understand the importance of innovation and who don't face obstacles and threats when they attempt to innovate. When we look in envy at 3M or Apple or Google, we often look past the investments that led to innovate success, and seek to point out the tools, or techniques, or individual leaders, that seem to create the success. It's all of that, and none of that. The success of any capable innovator ultimately resides in the understanding that innovation requires continual focus, an engaged culture, people who understand and use innovation tools and insights successfully. In other words, the best innovators understand that innovation is an activity, a set of tools, but most importantly, a competence.
You can achieve that competence through strategic alignment within your business. Paul Hobcraft and I have defined an innovation workmat approach to help senior leaders align their goals and build innovation frameworks to sustain innovation as a core competency.