Steve Jobs and the like are exceptions! Let us respect them. But they alone are not enough. Apple and Steve Jobs alone cannot the run the world. We need people like them in every line. We need people like them at every scale.
While Apple and Google provide inspiration; there is a company through its sheer consistency in innovation has shown how small thoughts can go onto making a large company. This is 3M. When one studies 3M and history of its product, one can understand that they are not running behind a single path breaking innovative idea. They are coming up with products that solve simple need and most of it extending on an earlier idea.
This is a thought that is important for businesses of smaller scale. Innovation can be a game-changer at all scales and at all levels. Not necessarily only for multinational or products. Innovating one’s supply chain, innovating one’s processes, innovating one’s production floor layout, innovation in services could cause a considerable shift in both productivity and profitability for a small and medium company. And the best part is the rate of jump that happens with a small twist to thinking is definitive in impact and significance!
So SME companies instead of relegating innovation as something that needs to be considered only when they become large, should swiftly and adeptly embrace it at every aspect of their operations and strategy. For only when they do this, can they even realize the dream of becoming large!
One of the first things that successful innovators learn as a skill is ‘observation’. Learning to observe what? Problems, challenges, frustrations etc., that potential customers face on a daily basis. Learning to observe these opens up plethora of opportunities for innovations.
If we ask people what they want, they may never know. But if you engage with them in conversation about what bothers them or what is it that they want to achieve – it will open up unseen and undiscovered needs and wants.
All such opportunities are potential centres for ideation. When we ideate around opportunities we create solutions that are useful for the market. These innovations are potential business ideas. The entrepreneur’s search for an appropriate business model should happen after this. Else innovation could remain as mere fantasies and hopes.
We need more successful entrepreneurs. For this we need successful innovations. For this we need market centric solutions. For this we need to know what the market wants. For this we need to observe more.
So if you want to become more innovative..observe more!
Creativity is an important aspect of Innovation. Many of the scientific discoveries sit on a creative thought – A thought that stopped asking Why? And started asking why not? Right from moving from geo-centric to helio-centric planetary system, to structure of benzene, to buoyancy and scores of other life changing discoveries and invention, the question ‘Why Not’ has paved the way.
Courage to come up with ideas that seem outright crazy is but an essential aspect of creativity.
If people in the past had not made attempts to think of these out of the world ideas, we may not have seen many of the developments that we see today. We certainly may not remember too many of them, but their contributions remain fueling many of the modern day contraptions. These selfless people with open minds that had the capacity to dream big, are the ones who have led society forward. We need more of them. But the truth is all cannot be them. However we can all play a definitive part, in the collective journey of innovation. Then the first step that we need to do is to stop asking ‘WHY’ when someone suggests a solution, and start saying ‘WHY NOT!’ Even this requires tremendous courage. Many a times even more than the ideaist! Do you have it?
When I was invited to speak at the DMI College of Engineering this week, I happened to talk to a bunch of students from both bachelors and masters level courses in Engineering and Technology. I shared with them my thoughts on creativity and the art of coming up with ideas.
When one of the students asked me if he can think of entrepreneurship without that single out-of-the-box idea, it got me thinking! Is innovation only for companies like Apple and Google? Is innovation only for people like Steve Jobs and Mohammed Yunus? I think it is for everyone. Every little improvement, every little advancement, every little progress is innovation maybe on a smaller scale. It is many small steps that take you to the possibility of a paradigm shift.
The message I left for the students was to make progress one step at a time. I asked them to keep attempting to figure problems in the world and come up with solutions one at a time. It may be an idea that solves only a part of the equation – so be it! When they do this regularly, they will start with simple solutions, but along the way, their ideas will get better. Archimedes did not come up with the idea of buoyancy suddenly – neither was it his first bath! Staying with the problem as he lived his life made the solution build up in his mind over time. Every single small improvement in thought must have led him to suddenly discover that big shift. In a similar manner when a student keeps working on the challenge, problem, or subject of his interest – there will be many small ideas that will come along. He / She has to learn to accept it and build on it. As they stay with the problem and keep coming with number of ideas, at some point they will come up with a break through idea.
The best part is they will never know which one it is for a long time after they have come up with it. But if one is courageous to come up with it and make the world a better place, they will be remembered. If not directly, definitely through their product or service! So keep ideating for no idea is good or bad, its just one more along the way…
We were discussing a rather frustrating problem at office last week. How much ever we tried we found ourselves at our wit’s end. The problem was not a business related one that we are used to. It was of an entirely different kind.
There was some recent celebration for which the team had used streamers and fixed it with cellotape on the wall. After a week when they wanted to remove it, much to their dismay they found it left the otherwise spotlessly clean white wall spotted with hues of yellow, pink and orange in a most disorganized way. And it did not help that it was in the room that we would meet clients. And on that day an hour from then was a scheduled meeting with a prospective client. This was our first meeting too! Nothing from my side was able to placate my team on letting it go and get on with work. Though they were preparing for the meeting, every now and then someone would walk into the room; stare at the wall and attempt doing something about it.
From water, nail polish remover, usage of manicured nails, applying cellotape to rip off the color, trying to write over the spots with chalk – everything was tried. And suddenly a member of my team walked-in, removed a large world map that was there on the opposite wall and fixed it on this wall. And smugly the map sat over the patches on the wall. There was an audible gasp of relief. The first reaction from most of us were ‘ Why could you not think of something so simple earlier?’
In many cases quick thinking is equated to thinking faster and with increasing complexity on the issue at hand. More complex the thought process, more gratifying it seems to all involved! However many times innovative solutions come up rather easily when we focus on the problem properly. The problem we were all trying to address was how to remove the stain – while the actual problem was how to make the wall look cleaner in time for the meeting! Once we changed the question – the answer that came to us was simple, straight and served the purpose.
We can argue endlessly on this being a quick fix and hence not correct. While this and many other aspects can be true – the thought that I want to place in for consideration is when you are unable to solve a problem or come up with an innovative solution to a business challenge for sometime– Revisit your question. Maybe it is defined incorrectly.
As we did mention in our latest innovation report (http://bit.ly/14RsvlV ) - aligning of the thought process by asking right questions and identifying the organizational issues that is to be solved is a needed anchor for innovation! Innovation reaps benefit of free thinking – but it requires direction!
Infact I had written about a similar dilemma one faces in consulting engagements, for YourStory http://yourstory.in/2011/08/the-complexity-of-simplicity/ You could find that of interest too!
Any organization wanting to tap into the power of innovation has to be willing to develop the mindset of accepting failure. If managers do not develop a mindset for this, most innovation efforts / programs will die in their infancy. The reason being, nobody wants to be looked upon as the person who failed. But most are fine if they are seen as people whose experiments didn’t work out. Understanding this difference can have a large impact on your innovation program.
When managers leading the innovation program are able to set clear and short experiments, incremental in nature and building just a little on the previous step – failure when it happens becomes a part of the process. It does not get too much attention. This allows the team to tweak the experiment if required and take another attempt at it. Innovation programs, then must incorporate experimentation as a way of nurturing creativity and enthusiasm amongst employees to participate.
As against this imagine a program structured to run as a big-bang process, where on selection of an idea, the attempt is to run it end to end on a single run. What would happen if this fails? What could be the impact commercially and on the psyche of the team behind the idea? Will it encourage others to try? Will it encourage the firm to stay on its course of searching for the NEXT idea?
Failing early provides for better utilization of resources, efforts and most importantly enthusiasm. The next time you hear about organizations discussing innovation as an important aspect of growth – check if there are enough opportunities for failing early in the program. If not the program is bound to fail!
Recently, we had a meeting with the CEO of a medium sized knowledge company. He was sharing with us the campaigns and initiatives around their innovation program. He said he was facing a unique issue. While individuals are extremely enthusiastic when it comes to innovation and creativity training, the number of ideas that they are contributing is actually abysmally low. This is not an isolated instance where we are hearing this issue from senior management with respect to their innovation programs
Many corporate realise the importance of innovation as a strategic differentiator. Few are taking the cue seriously and getting into concrete action. Most of us are trained to be anti-creative. As we go through their life, the conditioning of sticking to the crowd, has made blunt our instruments of imagination and spirit of experimentation. So companies need to provide training on tools and techniques to their employee set, so that these can be sharpened. Their first step should be to have an across the board training that is aimed to sensitize and tickle into action the hidden creativity of their employees. While companies often get this step right – they fail in the subsequent one.
Neither the company nor the employees are clear on what they have to do once they become creative. Employees are seldom aware of where and how to contribute. What will happen to their contribution? What is the progress path of a good suggestion? What is the fallout of a rejection? Lack of a system and process for innovation program – shrouds the initiative in mystery. When participants are not aware of the path of an idea within the firm, the opaqueness discourages them. Transparency of an idea lifecycle is a must in an innovation program. Failure to have this will yield little results, despite a great innovation campaign and training program.
Innovation program need a holistic design and approach. It should not be just limited to training. When only parts of the program are put in place – the expected results don’t appear. And this is no surprise!
Innovations are needed not just in products and services. They are more importantly needed in looking at markets differently, going to market differently, for better relationship orientation and also around the business model.
However many corporate obsessively focus innovation efforts and outcome only on product design and new product development. While these seem as obvious areas which would reap benefits, one cannot ignore the benefits of innovation in area of process, service, sales etc. Where we have seen maximum benefit is when we ask the teams we train to think on their own work process and outcome, and ask them what is it they want to change in the current practices as both performers and beneficiaries.
We constantly tell our clients that innovation does not mean coming up with one great new idea. It is coming up with useful small shifts in routine, small experiments which could possibly move productivity, throughput, resource utilization by many notch higher. By encouraging the employees to perceive innovation as that little thought that could make their work life easier and better, more benefits have been reaped than when innovation is seen as that epiphanic moment of path breaking idea.
Every time we get a chance to re-orient the strategic innovation ability of an organization, we realize the true potential of an institution. Unleashing the innovative abilities of people results in tremendous energy within the institution and thereby resulting in improved performance (internal and external).
So where is your focus: Narrowly focused on products or broadly at the level of organizational process and dynamics? Focused on that one big strike or on many small experiments?
While it is globally acknowledged that the future belongs to organizations that can innovate – the vast majority of the emerging companies are still struggling with making innovation work. Why is it so?
The predominant reason is with the measures of performance. Historically when a firm has been very performance driven, then that becomes a culture. In every action of the firm, the inherent expectation of performance and metrics get embedded. When an innovation program gets initiated, it is natural for such a firm to extrapolate the existing measures that it uses for its mature business for measuring success of the innovation program. While I am not suggesting even for a minute that innovation programs or efforts should not have measures associated; what creates problem is when measures applicable to existing and mature businesses are extended to the innovation program which is predominantly exploratory in dynamics.
One of the ways to re-look at this is to set clear expectations from the innovation program. If the CxO level team sets the right strategic expectations from the program, then leaders from the execution layers can create appropriate program structures with the right measures that don’t stifle performance. When innovation experiments fail, organization programs must have the right routines to handle them. This should be in such a way that they have to encourage the employee to re-join the innovation program again. This is one of the biggest challenges in many institutions.
One of the companies that approached us for innovation services, had in place an innovation program, which was not as effective as the CEO expected. When we analyzed their program, we found while many of the initial program set-up routines were appropriate, the parameters of success as defined for the innovation program was very short sighted. Instead of encouraging experimentation, the metrics were highly result oriented in terms of short-term gains. This prevented many good ideas and experimentation to take off in the system. The focus on ROI was stifling free thinking.
A good innovation program encourages experimentation but has a set of check gates that are able to spot and further meaningful ideas in a systematic manner. Innovation programs must have staged review so as to exact maximum participation. As more people participate in the program, the ideas must be validated in stages and moved to the next stage with adequate support of resources. Success in an innovation program comes from open appreciation to the willingness to experiment, coupled with a keen intuition on identifying aligned proposals and providing them with concrete support in terms of resource and time. And there is no defined time frame when it comes to gestation period of an innovation program, however it can definitely be catalyzed. Senior management require patience and long-term commitment if they want to benefit from their innovation programs in the true spirit of the game!
As we kick start 2013 amidst lot of optimism – many are unable to shake off the silent worry of troubled markets and the continuing impact of recession. The southward trend is slowing down and we are sure the upward move will start, but when, remains the question on everybody’s mind.
While entrepreneurs have always had to work on shoe string budgets to create mind blowing innovations, larger organizations are challenged by existing mindset and cultural barriers to become innovative. Though being creative is being flaunted as one of the most important facets for a business to survive this turbulence, creativity and innovation is one of the most difficult functions for any institution to initiate and sustain.
So what’s stopping Indian small and medium businesses from using innovation to sustain and scale. The biggest challenge is – mindset! This is not the mindset of the organization at the employee level but it is one at the level of the leaders. Though all CEOs talk about the huge benefit that 3M and Google have derived from giving free time to work on personal interests and institutional interests for the long term, very few organizations are able to implement initiatives like these for themselves. Why?
Because, the mindset of leaders and managers is still ensconced in the old school of thought – ‘Empty mind is a devil’s workshop!’ Leaders and managers are paranoid about people not having allocated work to do. They are paranoid about giving people free time and space within office confines. They are averse to people simply chatting up, talking about future of the firm, tinkering about a possible product / service, surfing and reading online, spending time on social media, etc.
So many managers and leaders actually become innovative in finding ways to keep the workforce busy even through slack time . Very often you will find teams doing inane and non-value add work religiously, rather than exercise free thinking and experimentation. To this the workforce reacts in a predictable manner. They become innovative in finding methods to break these monotonous routines and seeking special avenues of escape from mundane. However these efforts are directed toward alleviating the individual’s situation at workplace.
What can happen if the employees are allowed to pursue their interests without any restrictions or expectations? If they are allowed formally to work on things outside of their immediate business without any obligation back to the firm, the ideas that would emerge will often be centered on what could make their work and business better.
Empowering employees to participate in creativity and innovation workshops, enabling them with the necessary tools to be more opportunity and idea prone, giving them the freedom to experiment without worry and providing them the opportunity to lead those potential projects with small internal investments, can result in huge upside for organizations.
When we conduct the Idea to Opportunity Workshop or the Double Filter Innovation Process Workshop, we have seen firms experience a wave of positive change. Return on investment is always faster and larger than what the management had braced themselves for. A lot of innovation is actually “allowing” – removing restraints and constraints from the daily life of employees. Creating an environment of trust and freedom brings responsibility, when kept within a highly system oriented boundary.