Innovation is hard, it doesn’t happen by following a tried and true cookie cutter approach. It often begins when someone begins to think and act differently, usually in isolation, from the rest of an organization; challenging convention.
It’s impossible to escape the amazing tales of people starting with an idea in a garage (think Apple) and growing it into a billion-dollar global business. But a startup isn’t as easy as those well-known stories might have you think. There’s a little bit of luck and a whole lot of other influences at play.
Adopting leadership mindset means you compete against yourself, not against others. You choose to create and deliver better options and not just doing what everyone else does. When you compete against yourself you set your own pace, your own expectations.
The question is not whether A.I. will take over our jobs, it will, it’s how soon and how. One thing is for sure: it will happen in phases; first it will create new ones where it will augment our abilities not replace them. Organizations have loads of data about their customers, but that data needs to be cleaned and labeled before it’s fed into an algorithm that will make sense of it all.
Whenever I get asked by executives about how their companies can innovate they expect me to respond with a prescriptive 3 to 5 point checklist of things that will solve all of their problems. Instead, I respond with a question: what are you doing to impede it?
Innovation is the mother of necessity, but imagination also drives innovation. There isn’t one single way to get ideas, the most common way is seek out needs and create something that will satisfy those needs. The other way, less talked about, is to scratch your own itch.
Established organizations are highly specialized, they hire optimizers. But hiring for innovation is different, you’re looking for people who are highly curious; explorers. This is culture shock for an established organization because they’re used to optimizing what already works, and a good way to judge that is by looking at someone’s title. None of this reflects ability, because innovation is all about surprises and navigating them.
Innovators are looking for a challenge, not a job. Getting the most out of themselves is what drives them. They’re naturally attracted by any challenge that doesn’t have a clear path forward. So rather than evaluate them on predictable results, evaluate them for predictable attitude and flexible approach to overcoming challenges.
The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways. The main challenge is you’ve been trained and are experienced in something that is no longer valuable. Which means you have to develop new skills. The other is most people use technology in their day-to-day lives, but are not trained in using it to create better outcomes for others; they’re consumers not creators. This circumstance is the result of both the education system and yourself.
The work of innovation – whether you’re doing R&D, creating a breakthrough, pursuing a disruptive strategy or sustaining your core – is not business as usual. It doesn’t work in a straight line, and the more radical the project the more uncertainty there is. This is more evident in domains where lives are at stake; such as medicine.
Why do established businesses fail? Because they miss the future. And what contributes to them missing the future? Many things, among them is a focus on maintaining the status-quo while avoiding uncertainty.
Groups whose members interacted only intermittently preserved the best of both worlds, rather than succumbing to the worst. These groups had an average quality of solution that was nearly identical to those groups that interacted constantly, yet they preserved enough variation to find some of the best solutions, too.
You don’t innovate by adding more activities to what you already do. You innovate by eliminating those activities that impede it. Yes, organizations get in their own way just like people do. Innovation has many enemies that act as inhibitors to innovation; the biggest enemy being your existing culture. Simply pointing out these enemies isn’t enough, you have to create mechanisms to combat them. And most of the challenges are related to what management rewards and punishes, which drives people’s behavior.
To create a culture of innovation you have to think and act different. The organizations that fail at innovation focus on neither. Rather, they believe they act – through some version of an innovation program that includes training, workshops and tools – and revert to their old ways when that fails. If they internalize that culture comes first they’d accept that mistakes are an inevitable consequence of doing something new.
Innovation has many enemies, expertise is one of them. Experts only know the way that got them there. They want to give answers, but innovation requires new questions. These new questions can only be asked by shifting ones perspective, a job outsiders are perfectly positioned for. Outsiders are the ones who change the game because they’re not blinded by expertise; they approach the situation from a new perspective.
Innovation is a code word for leadership. Yet innovation is not business as usual; it requires a different mindset: a growth mindset. You have to be comfortable with ambiguity, putting yourself and your organization un uncomfortable positions, having a point of view and pursuing it with conviction.
I was exposed to building things with ones hands from a very young age. I got to see and experience the innovation process up close and personal: spotting opportunities, defining the problem, brainstorming, prototyping and testing.
If you’re not looking for the best, you’re looking for good enough; you’re playing not to lose. This is a recipe for disaster. Remember: The people on your team reflect the future of your organization. So if the people on your team don’t have a growth mindset; neither will your organization.
Innovative organizations understand that innovation has many enemies, some seen and others unseen, and its leaders are actively involved in keeping them at bay. What enemies?
As they grow and mature, established organizations develop many obstacles that impede innovation. The biggest obstacle to transformation is human nature; this is why innovation is as much about attitude and perspective as it is about process.
Curiosity and empathy are the foundation for innovation. You have to get curious about what’s happening, and about people. This means that to innovate you have to ask more interesting questions, observe and learn more. You have to develop a big appetite for knowledge because you want to expand your perspective by having many mental models to use when taking on challenges.
The most common goal, from a corporate point of view, is to reduce the cost of human labor and thus increase the profits of the business. But that shouldn’t be the only perspective. I’ve yet to encounter business leaders who think about automation from the perspective of the person who should benefit the most from it: the customer.
Innovation happens at work when a few things are true, two of them are organizational support and rewarding bravery; both critical for a culture of innovation. As a leader or manager you have to remember that people don’t leave their jobs, they leave their managers.The reason is simple: It’s critical for people to feel like they’re making progress. Enthusiasm is oxygen, and people’s spirit dies if you kill it.
An established organization maintains stability because they’re specialized on optimizing their existing business model to deliver more of what already works. While this is great and keeps the wheels turning it’s also why they’re set up to fail because their experience and success is a straight jacket that’s hard to shake out off; put simply: Your internal culture is the biggest enemy to innovation.
Technology non-believers need to understand that innovation is rarely disruptive; the media and pundits have taken that word and made it meaningless. What is certain is businesses who were not born with a digital first perspective are currently being forced to make the transition to a digital business. Making this transition requires a new type of leadership; an exponential mindset.
Every business misses the future and gets disrupted by an outsider. This happens because the incumbents are stuck in their ways, doing the same thing over and over again and never zoom out to take a look at the macro view.
The default state of every new idea is no, and every single innovator has to figure out a way to turn that no into a yes. It’s not easy because people are resistant to technology because they’re afraid of losing what they’ve built, what sustains them. This is “the messy part about innovation“, what no one talks about because they opted for an easier path. But the truth is change is messy, and no one is immune to it.
Ideas are the seeds of innovation, and all people are creative. So, the answer is yes. But it comes with a caveat: Most every organization wants innovation but rejects creativity. Traditionally managed businesses with a short-term, profit maximization mindset are hard-wired to reject innovation.
So, can you be creative on purpose without waiting for lightining to strike?
Yes, you can be creative on command but in my experience two things have to be true for it to work:
1) A well defined problem;
2) Deep immersion and then distancing yourself from the challenge.
We live in a society that values and rewards efficiency over creativity. Yet, the tasks that lead to efficiency are slowly being taken over by robots and bots leaving us humans to do things that are not repetitive in nature. As this happens, we’ll have more time to do what leads to creativity: daydreaming.
One of the reasons big companies can’t innovate is they grow inert and can’t match the dynamism of the market. Markets are dynamic, companies are not. It’s very hard for companies to match the velocity, variance and selection of markets. As a business leader, a good question to ask yourself is: Are we changing as fast as the world is changing?
Established organizations want to better their operations, find a new way to go to market, increase customer loyalty or any other positive outcome that betters the business; with a predictable strategy. But better and different outcomes are not achieved in a straight line; chaos is the norm.
Most organizations are not setup to hire innovators, rather they filter them out. Why? Because they follow the tried and true solid advice for making good hiring decisions: hire for culture-fit.
Every assumption is an innovation opportunity. The assumption that only a few of us is brave, creative and bold needs to be killed for everyone to make an impact in the Next Economy, one where most routine jobs will be delegated to algorithms and robots. The only thing we can’t delegate, and shouldn’t, is that what makes us human: creativity.
Where fear runs rampant, innovation dies. Fear is mediocrity’s friend. It’s why most businesses rarely create new business models, they’re simply too afraid to try anything new because failure is not an option. To fail is to get fired. But, the bottom line is failure is a prerequisite for innovation, they go hand in hand.
Innovation isn’t easy, and there are all types of myths on how to make it work and not make it work. In this webinar, Professor Julian Birkinshaw talks about his research on the myths and realities of innovation in large organizations.
What do we mean when we say we must innovate or die. Do we say that to sound smart and interesting? Do we say it to jump on the bandwagon? How about a sense of urgency because we actually believe that there is a better way? Yes, we need to innovate. But based on an obsession with betterment, not with selling more stuff to people.
Solving all of the issues and establishing a well working innovation management system will support the growth of a company and it will create a good customer value and profitability. But they have to develop and improve their system continuously to protect their competitive advantage. Below I elaborate on some of these common innovation challenges and provide some guidance on how to solve them.
Failure can’t be separated from invention, it’s not optional. It’s also why you can’t mandate innovation, only inspire it. You can create the conditions necessary for it to happen, but it’s not a set-it and forget it deal.
No traditionally managed corporation would ever hire a Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or Larry Page type of person. Why? Because genius needs to be left alone, to be unleashed, to operate in chaos. And corporations want to put a leash on anything that challenges the status quo; they are afraid of genius because they can’t predict and control it.
Are all innovators alike, and can we all learn and develop the skills to become innovators? Yes. I’m big on fundamentals, and though you can’t create a Mozart or David Bowie, you can unleash your innovation capability by applying the skills necessary to be creative and innovate.
Not all entrepreneurs are innovators, only a handful. The result is that the vast majority of businesses out in the world were not born from creative ideas, rather derivatives. And when these non-innovative businesses want to explore innovation, they enter a dilemma: In order to innovate, an existing business must keep running the core business while also trying to find the revolution; exploit and explore.
The ability to automate work and use artificial intelligence to augment everyday tasks is now here. And, the nature of change in the workforce is accelerating as robots start to walk outside factories, the whir of drones grows louder in the air, and driverless cars are poised to join us on the streets in cities nationwide.
The more diverse a person’s social network, the more likely that person is to be innovative. A diverse network provides exposure to people from different fields who behave and think differently. Good ideas emerge when the new information received is combined with what a person already knows. It’s really simple, interactions, not individuals, drive breakthroughs.
A main challenge for businesses of any size is adapting to change, how to embrace emerging technologies and adapt them to the day to day. From a big picture perspective, the simple fact is that the internet is disrupting every know industry; so adapt or die.
What is the main obstacle that stands in the way of sustainable long-term success for any business? I’d argue that it’s culture. A strong culture will recover from mistakes and figure out a way forward; while a weak one will never aim to evolve beyond what it already knows. With that said, let’s get this out of the way: you must build culture from the beginning.
Inside established organization innovation is killed before it even gets a chance to make its case. The reasons are many, and while there are many Sins of innovation,from my POV the one that kills most projects focused on transformational outcomes are ones where there needs to be a fixed “process” for achieving those outcomes.
If you’re a successful company, you’re probably not used to innovation. You’re used to being good at what you do, and that’s the opposite of innovation. Smart innovation that evolves a new and marketable product often requires an innovation partner. There are a lot of reasons for that. But they boil down to a deceptively simple concept: Two heads think better than one.
The argument most academics and MBA’s make about competition is that it is good for everyone, not just the customer. By competing, the logic goes, businesses become better. Yes, competition makes us better, but only when we are caught by surprise.
Yesterday, I was a judge for a showcase of projects from marketing students of a local university. Most of the projects that were pitched are apps that exist elsewhere in some form; nothing game-changing. There were many common innovation myths that were present in many of the pitches, such as “our competitive advantage is being the first ones in Mexico”, “our competitive advantage is there isn’t something like this anywhere”, “our competitive advantage is we have no competition”.
First of all, being first doesn’t matter; being right does.
Whenever situations like these come up, I tell people that they should remember about what approach to innovating they are taking. As a rule of thumb, there are three ways to come up with a game-changing innovation.
Almost always great new ideas don’t emerge from within a single person or function, but at the intersection of functions or people that have never met before. As a business leader, you can engineer these connections; serendipity.
Leadership starts from within. People are the biggest barrier to innovation. Be it the executive who dominates every conversation, the one that talks but doesn’t walk the talk or the one that kills all ideas just because it’s not in his/her best interest.
As innovators that want to make things happen and are constantly seeking ways to counter resistance to change. It comes with the territory and is the most predictable challenge we will encounter. There are many common sources of resistance to change inside organizations and from potential customers: inertia, indecision, fear of making mistakes, lack of best practices and lack of care for your product/service. How do you overcome them?
For as much talk and examples of innovation are discussed, most organizations haven’t gotten the message. And frankly they never will because it goes against human nature. Here’s the message for you: Innovation is not additive, it is subtractive.
I think this a question many executives are asking themselves, and undoubtedly are looking for a silver bullet answer. My answer?
First, let’s get a few things out of the way… innovators share some common characteristics.
The main challenge for any innovator is idea adoption. So, it’s important to understand both how ideas spread and what motivates people to adopt those ideas. So, how does an innovation spread?
Unlike books written by consultants about how wonderful the companies they study are, and how they have reverse engineered their formula for success into repeatable soundbites, Creativity Inc. was written by someone who was in the trenches; from the beginning. Written by Ed Catmull, co-founder and President of Pixar, Creativity Inc. is a first hand tell-all about what enables Pixar to do its thing: successfully turn original ideas into blockbusters, one after another.
Mr. Catmull’s motivation for writing this book stemmed from a simple question: why do successful companies fail?
Most likely you are in a traditional organization where management still rules the day, bureaucracy can’t stand in the way or enable innovation. Let’s imagine that you’ve talked about and agreed that innovation needs to become more than simple talk in your organization. To make this happen, you’ve decided to unleash the hounds: the passionate people who you’ve sat on the bench because of their fearless nature to now follow the rules.
Still, who among these mavericks can really push through?
The way to get creative is by breaking a routine, like doings things you would never do so those unconventional ideas come to the fore. You do that by reading stuff you normally would not read, by visiting places you would not go to, by hanging out with people who are not like you.
That is one part of the equation, with an added observation that you should be mindful about what you read, see, hear, smell, taste and feel. The next part of the equation is to do something with that new knowledge.
As part of my auditing process, one of the key questions I ask is: what was the most recent innovation in your industry?
Depending on how this question is answered, it will tell me a few things:
How this company both defines and perceives innovation
If they are focused on innovation
If they are keeping tabs on their respective industry