Innovation is like motherhood; everyone agrees it is a wonderful thing. But beyond that, they’re rather mystified by the subject.
We all know how far our economy depends on innovative goods and services, so the pressure is greater than ever to build companies where creativity is not a fluke.
But there’s a lot of mythology surrounding this subject and the best first step is to get rid of it.
Myth #1: Innovation involves quantum leaps
According to this myth, innovation must be transformative. The PC was a quantum leap innovation, as was the printing press and the automobile. But there aren’t many.
Furthermore, quantum leaps typically involve high costs and huge risks. Think Sinclair C5 or the Segway; both required changes in consumer behaviour that were not forthcoming.
Rather, think constant, incremental improvement. Toyota made one million changes to its cars in 2005. Not quantum leaps, but tiny adjustments which may never be consciously registered by the consumer, but which add up to a superior experience.
Think about Dyson: a global success story built by constantly improving a basic appliance that didn’t work.
Myth #2: Only geeks may apply
We are constantly told that engineers are the only people who make important innovations. But innovators are people who pay attention, not just geeks cooped up in cubicles.
If you’re good at noticing social change, you might invent comfortable clothes that transition effortlessly from work to dinner, like Eileen Fisher; if you understand the green revolution, you might see a market for handbags made from retired fire hoses, like Kresse Wesling. Yo! Sushi owes as much of its success to the growing number of business people eating alone as it does to its food.
So why has no one picked up on the fact that most new vicars are female and there are no products for them? Myth #3: Innovation requires geniuses
Much has been written about Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures, the company he started after retiring from Microsoft. He gets all his super-smart pals to read scientific papers and then convene to solve Big Problems. So far, they’ve filed over 500 patents – but where are the businesses?
Ideas are cheap. Functional companies and real products are hard. Or, as Steve Jobs said, real artists ship.
Give thinking time to your staff. WL Gore requires that all employees work on their own new ideas, or help with someone else’s, once a week.
Are you prepared to be that serious about innovation?Myth #4: Innovators are a special breed
You don’t need to hire an innovator with a track record to be innovative. Just like stocks, past performance is no guarantee for the future. Even Steven Spielberg made flops.
The romantic belief in the power of individual creative geniuses won’t make you smart, it will make you dependent. Cultivate creativity as a process, instead.
Oh, and, by the way: your customers are fantastic sources of ideas, if you know how to talk to them.
If you work from the assumption that every person in your business is capable of having a good idea, then you have to ask yourself: what is stopping that idea from contributing to your business? Processes? Individuals? You? What are you going to do about it? Where are your million ideas going to come from this year?
Eliminate the myths. Remove the obstacles. Believe in your people. Reward effort, not just success. And don’t punish failure. It isn’t easy. But it isn’t magic, either.
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