Innovating for Results

Graphic of digital 1s and 0s leading to keyhole
Man pointing to image to the left

There is a lot of talk about innovation.  Much of it revolves around how to anticipate customer needs (ideally before the customer or any of your competitors recognize the need) and generate ideas about products and services that will help customers meet those needs.

Thfoosball tableere are books and articles about how to get employees, suppliers, customers and any other organization or person with whom you interact to help generate those ideas.

If you follow some of the pundits, the key to success is creating a free-wheeling, high-energy environment where employees are coddled with foosball, free food and other perquisites, so they will think creatively and continually generate great new ideas.  And of course, anyone that comes up with an idea is to be encouraged, not critiqued, lest they feel underappreciated and stop generating new ideas.

Graphical man checking listBut is the real problem a lack of ideas?  Or is the real challenge filtering through a plethora of ideas to find the idea(s) that have the most promise of bringing benefit to your organization?  Things like increased revenue, reduced costs, improved customer satisfaction and others?

Scott Belsky, co-founder of Behance, believes "It’s not about ideas.  It’s about making ideas happen."

While we are asking questions, here are a couple more: Is blindly encouraging creativity really the best way to have your employees doing what is best for your organization?  Is it a requirement to constantly tell employees they are great and their ideas are great, even if the organization is not benefiting from their efforts?

Image with Review circled by wordsAccording to Michelle McQuaid in an article in the Huffington Post at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michelle-mcquaid/is-positivity-dangerous-f_1_b_10056020.html , some of the talk about positivity is over-hyped.  There are times that positive thinking and positive feedback is helpful, but it is NOT a full-time thing.  There are times to be positive and times to be critical.

Roberto Verganti would tell you, in an article at https://hbr.org/2016/01/the-innovative-power-of-criticism , that it is very important to have critical - yes critical - reviews of new ideas in order to have multiple perspectives on the ideas and to refine ones that warrant further investigation.

Christian Seelos and Johanna Mair, in an article at http://ssir.org/articles/entry/innovation_is_not_the_holy_grail , say that a focus on innovation can actually be counter-productive if it is done as a program instead of something to be integrated in every facet of the organization.

So what are you doing, or what could you be doing with your organization, to ensure that  it is your organization that comes up with the things that will keep your customers coming to you - not your competition?

As we discussed this in our CEO Peer-to-Peer group, some interesting questions and perspectives arose.

Image of magnifying glass looking up innovate in dictionaryFirst off, if you want to promote innovation, how do you define innovation?

We started with the traditional definitions that used words like creative, disruptive, passionate and others.  We decided that many of these words, including the word innovation itself, actually got in the way of encouraging innovation in your organization.  Why?  Because these words can sometimes create an expectation in the minds of employees and a benchmark that that they believe is out of reach for them.  For example, if someone believes they are not creative, telling them they need to be creative can be very discouraging.  And if you say innovation must be disruptive, then employees are unlikely to bring forward the numerous small changes that can make such a significant difference to your organization.  Disruptive can also be viewed as a negative (as in "That person is a disruptive influence.").

We decided to keep it simple: Innovation is doing something different that produces positive results for the business.

We then reviewed where each of us had seen innovation - according to the definition above - work in our organization.  And identified what the key to success was in each case.

Picture of keysKeys to success:

  • Start with an outcome in mind or clearly define a problem faced;
    invention for the sake of invention can be interesting but not always beneficial to your organization
  • Start small;
    it is easier to make a series of small changes to create successes and momentum before trying to push through a large change
  • Use your own definition of innovation;
    there may be others who define innovation in a way that is easy for them to measure (ie government funding programs) but it may not give you what is best for your business
  • Look for all forms of innovation;
    Process or pricing innovation can make as big  difference as product innovation
  • Make the evaluation process solid, but not onerous;
    do not make idea generation a negative experience
  • Make the evaluation process transparent;
    employees must believe their ideas will be treated objectively and fairly
  • Recognize that change often has a ripple effect;
    change in one area can drive required changes in other areas
  • Set aside a (small) budget for investigating ideas that look good but cannot demonstrate immediate ROI;
    some things cannot be initially valued with accounting metrics but they could be very beneficial long-term
  • Create a culture where change is a necessary and positive thing;
    most people resist change because of the potential negative consequences of change,
    show how not changing can have worse consequences
  • Recognize that change scares some people;
    identify those with something to lose and try to show them the upside of change
  • Sell the change based on emotion and justify on rationale;
    eg. Sell on "You could have this." and justify based on "The ROI is ... ."
  • Walk the talk;
    Leaders must create a culture of learning from failures not "finding the culprit" and leaders must be willing to support change even if it means changing one of their ideas or directives
  • Leave the ISO and other extensive documentation until later;
    a well documented bad idea is no good for anyone
  • Make sure the changes you want do not get ahead of the changes your customer is able/willing to absorb;
    this can be particularly important for products or services subject to extensive specifications (ie military procurement)

Since it is part of every success strategy, it probably goes without saying, but we'll say it anyways.  One key is to hire the right people and have the right people in positions to foster and enable innovation.

So yes, innovation - properly defined - can be a good thing.  Be sure it is done to make your business better and be very careful what words you use to spread it throughout your organization.

Remember the words of David Ogilvy, co-founder of Ogilvy & Mather: "In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.".  Remember, innovation is for results.

Image of word Results

Posted in General Leadership.

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