After further reflection on "innovation" and what it means to be "innovative," I think we have a real problem when it comes to the recent thinking on this topic.
I just read a thought-provoking article on "the discovery skills that separate the true innovators from the rest of us." This article included the things we could learn about innovation from understanding Michael Dell, Steven Jobs, Jeff Bezos, etc.
Well guess what? Interesting read, but we could also probably learn some things from studying Superman, Batman and Spiderman. However, I seriously doubt that any of these six real or fictional men have much to teach us about the reality of business innovation as practiced today. Sure, if you are like Dell, Jobs or Bezos go for it, but for normal companies trying to move forward into 2010, a whole different mindset is needed.
Let me be clear:
1. It's not about the breakthrough. Rarely is business innovation about a big breakthrough. Most of the time, business innovation is a refinement of an existing product, service or process that has huge value to the marketplace or to our business. Leadership is responsible to capitalize on this value.
2. It's often in hiding. The greatest enemy of business innovation is not the failure to create innovation, but rather that no one notices the innovation and the resistance to change kills the innovation before it sees the light of day. Leadership must actively seek out and pursue the innovations that are in front of us but are hidden from the view of those too busy to notice.
3. It doesn't take a superhero. Lastly, most people think innovation comes from "Innovation Centers," think tanks or R&D. Not true. The facts are most business innovation comes from the normal people within your company who have open minds, who listen well and who understand your business and your customers. Leadership must grab innovation and accelerate the value creation brought about from it.
So, clearly, innovation is leadership's job; not to create the innovations, but to stimulate, recognize and obtain value from innovations. My favorite question I hear from CEOs is: " How can I make my organization more innovative?" My answer is always, "Be innovative in how you attack innovation."
What does this mean? Do things differently. Shake some things up. Change reporting relationships, change responsibilities, change internal communications, and so on; do things differently. This is particularly true in today's business climate with the supply chain - a huge hot bed of opportunity for innovation today. It is very clear that only by doing things differently can we achieve innovation.
My top three thoughts on how you can "innovate with innovation" are:
1. Clearly communicate the message that: You expect every person in your organization to be engaged in some aspect of innovation. Interact across the business and across the supply chain. Better understand the needs and challenges of your supplier relationship management and your relationship management with customers. Look for opportunities to improve products, services and processes. Do not be afraid to collaborate outside of your organization or to use outside resources that have value to contribute.
2. Ask good questions. For example:
A. Ask questions about maximizing profits. Can you increase profits by reducing revenue? How can you grow profits?
B. Ask questions about elimination. Amazon eliminated the bookstore; Dell the computer store; Sony eliminated speakers. What can you eliminate?
C. Ask questions about additions to your products and/or services. Like adding wheels to suitcases, adding a camera to a telephone, adding value-added information to your customers. What can you add?
D. Ask questions about the customer experience. How can you alter your product or service to enhance customer value? What are your customers using your product or service for that is outside of your original intent?
3. Ensure that your organization has breadth of experiences and assign people of diverse background to work together. Innovations often occur when cross-functional knowledge of customer needs and industry trends are integrated to understand opportunities for improvement. Consider collaboration with suppliers, customers and outside resources. Engage business and social networking to listen to the marketplace. Understand the competition. Create a culture of identifying, prioritizing, allocating time and resources and recognizing and rewarding innovation. Encourage risk taking and understand the importance of learning from innovations that are not productive.
So, just as the thought-provoking article I referred to at the top of this article says, "Innovation is the secret sauce of business success," this secret sauce needs to be applied by today's leadership. Trying to be Dell, Superman, Jobs or others in that category is not the assignment; being yourself but innovating on innovation is what it is all about today.