Most people and most organizations want to be innovative.
After all, those who are first to market with a new product typically get the best returns, and those who develop new and more innovative processes can typically provide much better quality at much lower costs.
Similarly, those who create a management system that promotes an innovative culture can more easily achieve and maintain a competitive edge.
But consider how infinitely inventions such as those listed above happen …
Clearly innovation is challenging for all organizations, large and small; and the challenges are not always easy to identify.
For example, it may seem logical to surmise that a common barrier to innovation is lack of time or poor time management, and lots of organizations cite the lack of time and attention to innovation as a major barrier.
"People are too busy to think about innovation," they say. "If my boss's boss is too busy to think about new and better ways of doing something, I better be too."
Of course this is a good recipe for keeping things exactly the way they are while the world passes by … and regularly results in an organizational belief that there is "no time," so no one others to identify potential solutions or ways to become more innovative.
But dedicating resources to innovation does not seem to work that well either. It may foster a creative environment, but this does not need to translate into more workable innovations.
One organization created an innovative think tank with 12-14 people led by a senior executive. After two years they were disbanded because while they came up with some innovative ideas, none of them were financially viable; and in other similar instances, many of the best ideas were ordered out only to be bought to fruition by other companies!
So it would appear that time alone is not the culprit; and organizations may give innovation too little time, or too much.
So, you might ask, what can an organization do to improve innovation levels?
One of the first requirements is strong and empowering leadership , which must provide three important things:
- The amnesty that people often need in order to take the risk of putting ideas and observations on the table
- Awareness of the threats from the changing environment and the opportunities that may arise
- Awareness of likely or potential marketplace constraints
For example, when Xerox PARC created the mouse, it was, quite simply, amazing …, despite the fact that it cost $ 300 to build and only worked for a few weeks. But, since they had a generous budget these factors were acceptable.
Yet to make the mouse truly truly innovative required something quite different: constraints. Steve Jobs had the vision to add the constraints: the mouse must be buildable for under $ 15 and operate reliably for two years.
Perhaps the in-house innovation team (above) that was disbanded because none of their ideas were financially viable simply did not realize that the ideas were not yet complete … that marketplace or other types of constitutions were in play.
For successful innovation, you need people to seek out the real-world constraints that must be respected in order to actualize the idea. Until the idea can work within the constraints – like Apple's mouse- it is still in the germination stage, not yet a true innovation.
Another catalyst to innovation is fear of loss … as one company observed, "When our very survival was at risk, we began to implement a program of continuous improvement that called on everyone to contribute innovative implemented ideas!"
Because they had nothing to lose … because they had to develop new and better ways of operating in order to survive, they did!
Similarly, a start-up company with few resources must innovate or quickly wither away.
Applying the same concept to an organization that is not experiencing dire circumstances, it is most often true, that in order to develop a truly innovative culture it must be less scary for people to try something new and risk failure than it is to stay with the status quo . To create this condition, leaders must provide amnesty to reduce the risk of sharing new ideas.
Of course it also helps if the status quo looks pretty untenable. Never waste a crisis, and if you do not think you have one, look further around you.
Change is inevitable; a threat is always on its way!
Process innovation also requires getting close to the customers or people doing the work .
To be able to create or develop more innovative work processes, you must go to the work. 'Go to Gemba' (or the work place) is Toyota's mantra. You must go and watch the work flow in order to understand the processes and the problems that workers grapple with. You must see for yourself in order to envision a better product or process.
Along the same lines, simply asking customers what they "think they need" or what they want is simply not going to be enough. They can not innovate for you – you must go and watch them use your product to really understand the market.
Finally, when striving to increase an organization's innovation level, it is also important to recognize that outsiders often come up with the best innovations, because they have no ties to the status quo.
As many have said, it is easiest to think outside the box when you are from outside the box.
But outsiders often have a difficult time effecting real change because they are outsiders. A senior manager of a once innovative company wryly observed, "We say we like to bring in outsiders with fresh ideas, but when they share them we explain that's not the way we do it here."
Thus the innovation dilemma lasts …