My last blog post focused on the unpleasant truth that most organizations choke on radically new ideas. I’m afraid I might have left people with an “abandon hope all ye who enter here” mindset. Aw hell, that wasn’t my intention.  So let’s spread a little sunshine today and provide some alternative strategies for beating your head against the wall to create the “next big thing since sliced bread” (which I personally believe must have been “toast”).

  1.  Be realistic with expectations. Okay, hardly glamorous, but it is based in reality. One organization I worked with said quite honestly, “We’re not looking for disruption because we need to crawl before we can walk.”  So they focused on innovation of all types all along the “volution spectrum” that ranges from evolution to revolution, with a focus on the evolutionary.  They also realized that as they opened their minds to all types of innovation, that the edgy ideas would emerge even while they were looking for incremental ones. When you’re starting your efforts at increased innovation, it’s important to take the small yet important steps before you shoot for the moon.
  2. Carve out a group. At the Back End of Innovation Conference  in 2012, I met Chris Trimble of Dartmouth, who codified the “only three business models for innovation.” A) empower everyone, B) create innovation as a business process, and C) carve out a separate group that is autonomous from the larger organization, but is close enough to share key services and resources.  There are advantages and costs to each of the three, but Chris would tell you that the third one is what’s required to do something significantly big and different. As a gearhead, my favorite example is Dodge’s team Viper. At a time when their product line was duller than the flat gray paint on retired Navy ships, the public got excited by a concept car called the Dodge Viper.  A team of 75 people was created to make it a reality on a fast timetable and a limited budget in a converted Kelvinator refrigerator plant. That team succeeded in creating a fast and irrepressibly-fun product that helped to rejuvenate the brand.
  3. Talk to your customers and your competitors’ customers. Find out what irritates them.  Whether your customers are the end users of your organization’s products or services, or the internal customer your internal IT group serves, find out what’s on their Bug List – the list of items that bugs them about what you’re doing and how you do it.  Find out what triggers them emotionally so that you know where there’s an opportunity to make their pain go away and make their day. Brilliant innovations make an emotional connection with people. Look for opportunities to soothe emotional raw spots.
  4. Walk in your customer’s shoes and your competitors’ customer’s shoes. Better than talking to them is to spend time to see and experience what they do to find out what they take for granted. The things they’ve resigned themselves to may actually be something you can fix or improve.  I just read about someone who redesigned the airplane boarding pass to make it easy to understand.  I’m a frequent flyer and didn’t realize that boarding passes were broken since I see them all the time. But if I look at these documents as my sister would (she rarely flies), then I’d realize just how obscure they are.  Consider spending time with them, or somehow entering their world so that you can see how they see your offerings.
  5. Remember the job your offering does. It’s been famously said that no one wants a drill, they just want a hole.  Your offering exists to do a job for the user. I don’t want a phone, I want to be able to have a conversation with someone who’s not standing next to me. I don’t want a dishwasher, I want to have clean surfaces on which to put food or hold beverages. Does that change the way you see what you do?  At CCL, I’m responsible for helping to continuously improve the transfer of learning using technology.  If I see one more demonstration of a new technology that involves the demonstrator pointing and clicking from screen to screen showing the nifty features of the product, I will scream (apologies to my neighbors in advance). Yes, the features are nifty. But they’re much less important to me than understanding what is the benefit of the solution? How can it do the job I want it to do? I don’t want a “social media solution,” I want to be able to engage in conversations with my colleagues and learn from them and help them to learn. I don’t care about whether the drill is chuckless, reversible, direct drive, air drive, or purple with green spots until I know that it will create exactly the hole I want it to make.  Remember the job your offering does and focus on that in your innovation efforts. Build off of the job it does, not the offering you provide.

There are many paths to innovation, and many strategies that can help you build your organization’s innovation capacity. Planning a moon-shot to disruptive innovation is one of them.  And your organization may have development needs that should be met before it is capable of doing this. These are only five potential strategies.

What else do you do to drive innovation?

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