Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Innovation building blocks

I like music - but that does not exactly make me a good musician.  Over the years I've taken lessons on the piano, tenor saxophone, bagpipes and most recently the acoustic guitar.  One thing I've learned is that every competent teacher of any instrument wants you to learn and practice your scales.  As a kid I hated scales. Scales are just going up 8 notes and coming back down.  For a "C" scale you don't even get to throw in any sharps or flats - pretty boring and monotonous.  Scales get a bit more interesting as you add sharps or flats, but they remain composed of 8 notes.  When you are a kid practicing scales you constantly ask - when do we get to the "real" music?

As an adult learner (trying for the second time on the guitar after being told my family would leave me if I kept up the bagpipes) I've grown to appreciate the power of the scale.  After all, scales are really the building block of music.  A scale tells you what notes will go with or sound good with other notes, and which notes to avoid.  All music builds from scales, so getting them right and knowing your scales and chords makes all the difference.

I'm writing about this because there is a real link between learning music and scales and learning to innovate.  This is especially true when we think about two key items:  the basic building blocks and continual practice.  Except for the musical savants among us, all good musicians are good musicians because of repetitive practice and deep knowledge of musical building blocks - scales.  Likewise, all good innovators are a result of understanding the core concepts of innovation, and regular practice.

Practice, Practice

I'll leave to your imagination how I feel about practicing innovation.  On second thought, no, I won't.  If you want meaningful ideas that lead to good innovation on even a semi-regular basis, your people and teams need regular innovation practice.  Innovation isn't difficult but it is new and unusual, not a skill people regularly practice.  What's more, many people don't believe they are "creative" so the work looks even more difficult and unusual.  Regular practice with creativity and innovation tools is a must.

Now that we've covered one of the key reasons that many corporate innovation activities fail (lack of consistency and practice), we can turn our attention to another key problem:  understanding the building blocks of successful innovation activity.

Innovation building blocks

There are a couple of building blocks that are typically misunderstood or ignored, that can greatly improve any innovation activity.  If these building blocks are in place, innovation success will increase dramatically.  The building blocks are:

 - A cultural imperative for exploration and change
 - A key problem or challenge that a sponsor wants to solve
 - An openness to novelty
 - Good scope definition
 - Adequate time for participants
 - Diverse inputs and perspectives

You'll notice the word "ideas" is not in my list of building blocks.  That's because ideas are an outcome of a well-prepared, well-structured activity.  They are the result of good foundational work and practice.  Ideas, like great music, flow more easily and more tunefully when the essential building blocks are in place.

If your team possesses these building blocks, innovation is a walk in the park.  If not, your teams and activities will encounter significant barriers and roadblocks, which will either stymie your innovation work or cause the scope to be reduced to the point where your ideas resemble existing products and services.

Over the next few weeks I'll be exploring these basic building blocks.  If these building blocks are in place, innovation can be accomplished far more easily.  If not, each one will shift from a building block into a barrier.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 10:35 AM


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