Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Let's Innovate

Businesses that want to survive for the long term must always look for new and better ways to operate.  This can come in many forms, from process improvements to new services and products.  In a word, it is about innovation.  To remain viable we must continually innovate.
Before anyone can innovate, they have to really understand what it means.  According to, innovation is:
  1. the introduction of something new
  2. a new idea, method, or device : novelty
You don't see anything in this definition that indicates you must dream up the next coming of Facebook to innovate.  Putting that expectation on innovation is setting you up for failure.  You have to think differently to innovate, including what it means to be innovative.

Innovation can be broken down into many types.  For simplicity sake, I like these three:
  1. Operational innovation - Finding a better way to do something you do today

  2. Product/Service innovation - New or improved products and services within your current portfolio

  3. Disruptive innovation - This is creating the next big thing.  Changing your market completely.  Doing something that nobody has done so far and making it difficult to quickly replicate.
Consider what it takes to improve a process.  Using new techniques or tools to make a business process more efficient is a form of innovation.  It is the ability to take techniques that may already exist and applying them to your business.  It is not necessarily the bleeding edge stuff that defines something innovative. 

Look at your current product/service offerings.  Adding something new that compliments your current product/service or building on what you already have is innovation.  This type of innovation is usually closer to your customer than process innovation.

Would we like to come up with the next market disrupting innovation for our business?  Of course!  But holding this as the only example of what innovation is will set you back.  Not only will you not get operational improvements, it is very difficult to ever get to disruptive innovation without an innovative culture in place.  You can establish that culture through incremental innovation.  Start small and build up so that everyone understands what innovation is and how to get there.

Ok, so how do we get there?  For me, it starts with a story... 

In the mid 90's a friend and I came up with a crazy idea.  We were working on the largest software development project of its time and had created a program to help the other software developers track their changes, bugs, and releases. 

One night I had a dream (really!) that we started a company and turned this into a commercial product.  When I shared this idea with my co-developer, he laughed at me. Quite hard I might add.  I persisted. After some discussion with our employer we licensed what we had developed and spun off a new company.  To start, we knew that what we had developed was going to have to be thrown away.  Only the framework of the initial idea remained.  Why would we do this?  Hadn't we sunk a lot of time into this already?  Yes, we had.  We needed a strategy.  To make this idea viable, it was going to have to work in ways that we could not possibly see.  Our mantra from the beginning was just that - build a solid product that could be used in ways we could not yet imagine.  It worked! 

Although targeted for developers of software, we really did see our product used in ways we never could have imagined.  Our product was used to upload and download information to the Space Shuttle!  Our product was used for the creation of Disney movies starting with the Lion King to manage artist drawings.  Our product was used by Alta Vista, an early pioneer in Internet search engines for automated tracking of customer inquiries.  We even evolved it to be our customer relationship management (CRM) tool.  We had stayed true to our vision and built a solid solution that would be used in unique and unanticipated ways. Our innovation enabled our customers to innovate. It took great ideas, great people, and admittedly some amount of luck.  It still makes me smile to reflect on what was achieved from such simple beginnings.  The company has long since gone but the concepts and ideas remain.

What are we doing today?
  1. We have created a business strategy that calls for and embraces innovation
  2. Our values reflect innovation through our entrepreneurial spirit
  3. We have put programs in place to help our associates understand our strategy and to "Find a better way."
  4. Our senior leadership has embraced innovation and are walking the talk
The challenge for your innovation starts with the definition.  You must decide what innovation means to you.  You need to build this into your strategy and develop your culture to embrace innovation.  To make it work, you have to live the vision and the strategy every day.  No innovation is too small.  Will every idea work?  Probably not.  Is that ok?  Absolutely.  Culturally, your people have to become comfortable making suggestions for innovation and those receiving the ideas must be good listeners.  It is imperative that everyone live by the adage that no idea is a bad idea.  Even "bad" ideas can have nuggets that can lead to an innovative idea. 

Innovation comes with risk.  To have a successful innovation program you have to be willing to accept failures along with the success.  Find a way to learn from failure, don't ever punish failure.  That will immediately kill any desire people have to innovate.

Innovation is about change.  Your culture will have to be willing to accept change to innovate.  The status quo simply is not good enough.

Collectively your innovations will make your business even more successful than it is today.  What are you waiting for?  Let's innovate!

1 comment:

  1. My favorite Innovation definition is from Stone Yamashita Partners in SF:

    Innovation:To challenge the status quo by fusing _______ & __________ to create new value.

    Jeff VB