Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How to be more innovative

This is one of those posts where the topic feels so large and so poorly defined as to be almost impossible to describe.  Yet we get this question all the time - what can we do to be more innovative?  Every firm is in a rush to become more innovative, yet few have the time, resource or attention required.  I'm going to address in this post how to create an innovation discipline, since we believe that is the only way to sustain competitive advantage.

How to be more innovative, in five easy steps

Choose a focus or strategy

Innovation is much easier with a specific target in mind.  If your CEO or another executive asks for more innovation, work with that person to define the specific goals or strategies, or simply define what you think that means and pursue it.  Without a clear goal, innovation is exceptionally difficult.  With clarity, it is only reasonably difficult.  Align your innovation activities to specific corporate strategies and goals.

Understand the future customer

Your customers today are, more or less, content with what you offer.  They will offer at best incremental changes to existing products and services.  If you want to become more innovative, you need to understand the wants and needs of two groups - people who aren't customers today, and people who may be customers in the future.  The future is different from today, and your product or service must succeed in that uncertain future, not in today's market or environment.  You must spend time understanding the future customer and their likely wants and needs.  Use trend spotting and scenario planning to understand the future, and tools like ethnography to understand unarticulated needs.

Define a process or methodology

When I talk to my customers, I tell them that many innovation tools and methods seem simple and obvious, and in many cases they are.  I also tell them that the fact that I own a hammer, a saw and a level does not make me an adept carpenter.  There's a difference between owning tools and having competence with the tools.  Far too many potential innovators have tools and methods, but don't know how to deploy them correctly, use them incorrectly or do so in the wrong order or context.  There is a method to the madness.  Define an innovation method or process that encompasses all of the work you need to do - from problem or opportunity definition to product or service commercialization and launch.

Understand your scope and expected deliverables

Your business as usual processes will seek to simplify, reduce and moderate any idea you create.  Therefore, it is important to define how disruptive or radical the outcome should be IN ADVANCE so that you can ward off the impending simplification.  This is only possible if you have the commitment or permission to pursue really interesting ideas in advance.  Otherwise the culture will chip away, simplify and reduce radical ideas into incremental ideas, because those are the ideas that fit within the existing frameworks. Further, you need to define what your potential outcomes look like.  Should you create a new product, a new service or a new business model.  Without early definition and agreement, all innovation reverts to incremental product development.

Bridge the gaps

There are three important gaps to bridge when innovating.  The first is between strategic corporate needs and innovation teams.  That bridge has to do with strategy, clarity and permission.  This bridge ensures that innovators create something that aligns to corporate needs.  The second bridge is between insights and ideas.  We need to understand customer needs and bridge from the needs to relevant ideas.  The final bridge is between ideas and products.  Product or service development teams are overworked and unprepared for new, important ideas that must be prioritized.  Far too often good ideas end up listed far down the priority stack, where they starve from lack of attention and funds. 

No fast, simple method to great innovation

Innovation is a discipline or competency which must be developed.  There is no instant innovation, no just add water innovation that will create real value.  Any firm can become more innovative following these steps, through commitment, clarity, process definition and skill development.  Once you've put these five factors into place, run innovation projects or initiatives repeatedly.  The more experience your teams and processes have, the more effective they'll become. These capabilities are often at odds with existing business as usual processes and will diminish quickly if not regularly exercised.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:33 AM


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