What does it take to keep innovating? (part 1 of 3)

Can strategic innovation rely on creative chaos?To make a long story short, the answer is: No!
Read here what it takes to consistently innovate and give you a very cool example too.

Creativity ≠ Innovation

Let’s first be clear about what we talk about when we use words like ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’.

In this context, creativity refers to the novelty or ‘newness’ of a product idea. However, novelties can exist without a real-world application. There is usually no shortage of new ideas in your organization but merely generating ideas alone does not lead to tangible innovations. Most creative ideas do not come to fruition because they are not feasible, too far ahead of their time or just not developed effectively to take the next step towards realization.

This is where an innovation is different from a novelty: it is the combination that translates a novelty into a marketable product (or service), so an innovation brings together the newness, the value it creates and the adoption to something marketable – or as my professors calls it: “where the rubber hits the road!”

The application gap

Some people believe that new ideas can only emerge and take shape in an environment of creative chaos or in an anarchic workplace. This may bear some truth; nonetheless, it takes more than that to propel an idea through the organization to develop it to become a marketable product.

This is where so many organizations fail and the bigger the company the bigger the challenge: good ideas emerge from employees but they get stuck and starve somewhere in the middle layers before making it through to the decision-makers in executive management. Too often there is a disconnect between ideas, decision-making and implementation.

So, what does it take to bridge the gap? What is needed to ensure ideas with potential make it through to the top to become the innovations that will drive an organization’s future success?

Bringing structure to the creative chaos

It comes down to creating a balance between the creative space and focus on the future application. Innovative organizations manage to establish a rigid process or ‘production system’ that allows their staff to be creative by harnessing the process in a way that it delivers innovations reliably, continuously and within a specific time frame. – If you don’t believe that creative chaos generates cutting-edge ideas and leads to tangible output in a clearly defined productions system: here comes the example!

The IDEO shopping cart example

A company that masters this balance between creativity and structure consistently is IDEO, a successful company and innovation leader that makes its living by developing products for others. IDEO’s successful strategy is actually quite simple and straight forward; it focuses on innovation, speed and tangible prototypes.

To get the most out of this, watch the video first before reading on. It takes 8 minutes or so and your time is well spent! In the example, IDEO’s challenge of the week is designing a new shopping cart – a product that we all know and hardly anyone seems to give a second thought about how it could actually be improved much…

While you are watching, see if you can make out how IDEO’s process works in what they call ‘the deep dive’. The guy that reminds me of Groucho Marx is actually the boss of IDEO.

So, please watch this video before you read on: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M66ZU2PCIcM&feature=youtube_gdata_player

Learning from IDEO

What did you observe about how IDEO works?

Let’s compare. Here are some elements of IDEO’s process that you might have noticed and that are essential to their innovation process:

  • The team runs one project at a time. There is focus and no distraction by other projects or interferences.
  • The creative work is done in a playful environment that helps to getting to fresh ideas faster. The staff has the freedom to design their working environment themselves, the creative space.
  • All customer interactions take place outside this creative space and don’t interfere with the creative process.
    I bet some customers might be quite shocked to see how IDEO actually works if they could walk around and observe the process.
  • There is no hierarchy, no ‘boss’, just a commitment to follow the given creative process or framework.
  • The accepted attitude within the company is to dare and ask for forgiveness afterward rather than asking for permission upfront. It invites to trying out things instead of being reigned by (real or assumed) constraints from the beginning.
  • The team first identifies several critical dimensions then splits up to build several separate mock-ups in parallel before consolidating and converging to the final product. Trade-offs come late in the game after basic requirements have already been incorporated.
  • The team goes out to meet experts to learn from about relevant facts faster and shares all insight and findings they come across with the others.
  • The discussion or ‘deep dive’ of a team is focused and non-judgmental to allow for creative ideas to surface in a safe and trustful environment. Only one person speaks at a time and the team members support each others’ ideas while deferring any judgment.
  • Chaotic as it may look, the team actually follows a strict protocol or process with much discipline. One person, called the facilitator, keeps the team moving forward and was selected for the ability to be good with people, not for expert knowledge. This facilitator ensures the team remains on track, focused and follows the framework of the creative process.
  • There is a strict time constraint for the project to force teams to produce results. Occasionally, the facilitator acts somewhat autocratic by forcing group decisions to keeping the team on schedule.
  • Teamwork and trial-and-error succeeds over the plans of a lone genius.
  • Every team needs to produce a tangible product like a prototype or mock-up. A merely ‘theoretical result’ does not suffice. The prototypes are tested in real-life environments by the end users.
  • All team members vote for the best and feasible ideas while everyone contributes working towards the final product.
  • ‘Adults’ coordinate the overall process to ensure the teams meet customers’ expectations in the end.

What you do not see in the video but you might be interested in is how IDEO selects its people, the company’s most important asset and success factor. The teams are deliberately composed of members with mixed backgrounds and expertise. Much effort is put on the recruiting process and it takes 17 or so interviews before one gets to work for IDEO. These interviews focus on the culture fit and attitude of the interviewees. Performance evaluations found on peer reviews.

Oh, and don’t miss this one: IDEO deliberately hires people that would not listen to their boss!
Imagine that in the places you and I work!

So, what does it take to innovate?

What are the essential and generic characteristics of the innovation process?
Here is what it comes down to in summary to systematically and continuously innovate in an organization:

  • Open and conductive environment and company culture.
  • Carefully selected, highly motivated and diverse teams
  • Process aligns creativity and discipline
  • Leaders who demand and promote innovation.

As IDEO puts it, they are experts of the process, not of the product they start working on. – This is the (open) secret of IDEO’s success.

Still want more?

There are more free videos on IDEO and how they operate as well as on their shopping cart project publicly available on YouTube, for example.

In case you want to get involved yourself in innovating with IDEO, check out their open innovation network!

I plan to discuss more aspects of strategic innovation soon such as what it takes to be the innovation leader in your organization…

– Stay tuned and please share your comments!

References and additional information

Author: Stephan Klaschka

Stephan Klaschka is an awarded innovation executive, C-level consultant, Intrapreneur, and serial entrepreneur with over 25 years of international work experience. He held various senior business operations, strategy, regulatory compliance and innovation roles with Boehringer Ingelheim, leaving as Director of Global Innovation Management and Strategy. In this first-of-its-kind position, Stephan's work was central to the new growth rejuvenation strategy as a catalyst to initiate and drive pivotal innovations, leadership development, and disruptive and digital transformation across the Boehringer Ingelheim group worldwide. He has recently served as CEO interim of the "German Institute for Telemedicine and Health Promotion" (DITG). Stephan holds Masters Degrees in Computer Science, Management, and Business Administration as well as advanced degrees in Strategy, Innovation, and Leadership from leading schools in Europe and the United States. PMP certified. He has published extensively and created award-winning workshops on topics including intrapreneurship, healthcare, pharma, and new technologies. Stephan currently consults independently out of New York.

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