Your company is good at something.
By that, I mean, your company has acquired a competency, or, more likely, a set of competencies. You’re good at product design, or customer service, or procurement, or logistics. Some of these competencies are basic requirements for any business, some are specific to your industry, and perhaps some of your competencies form the basis of your competitive advantage – your company’s raison d’être.
Whatever they might be, at some point, your company acquired these particular competencies. You got better at them by doing them, again and again. Over time you developed and furthered your expertise. You mastered these processes. You do them efficiently now. Perhaps you’ve even won awards for your proficiency.
It is possible to think about innovation the same way? Could innovation also be an acquirable competency?
One non-obvious definition and two blindingly-obvious assertions on innovation in business
Have you ever tried to define “innovation” in a business context? It’s not as easy as it looks. What qualifies? What doesn’t? Can you innovate by changing, say, your company’s pricing?
Let’s save ourselves some time and just simply define innovation as: a “significant positive change” to a product, service, or process.
(By the way, if you do want to spend time on the definition, I refer you to the excellent post by Scott Berkun, found here.)
On to the blindingly obvious assertions:
- innovation is critical to business, and
- innovation is difficult to produce consistently (or even at all)
According to an excellent survey from McKinsey, found here, 84% of executives agree that innovation is critical for their business, but 94% are dissatisfied with their innovation performance.
So … how do companies innovate?
How do companies go about the critical-but-difficult task of trying to produce significant positive changes to their products, services, or processes?
The answers vary considerably. Some hire a genius designer, sometimes even from outside their own industry. Some try radical experiments, sometimes even tinkering with their flagship products. Some outsource the problem to consultants.
Business leaders are – usually – very rational people. Many would hesitate to “innovate” if the only way to do so was to solicit outsiders to introduce disruptions to their business. And, when you put it like that, can you blame them?
Is there another way to think about this?
I’d like to offer you a new perspective: I think that innovation is a competency. I think that this competency is learnable, trainable, and repeatable, and that it does not depend on outside geniuses with radical ideas.
I think that anyone with the right tools and training can consistently produce innovation in business.
A process for the suits and the muses
The vast majority of writing about innovation in business focuses on the outcomes, or the people involved, or the “five things you need” to establish an environment suitable for creativity and innovation. This is all fine, and useful in its own way, but it doesn’t tell us what to do, or how to start, or even how to know when we’re done.
We want a methodology: a documented set of steps that we can understand, learn, train others on, get better at, and ultimately develop into an in-house competency. But we also want creativity: we want something new, which means thinking outside the box. Furthermore, we want a way to tap into the latent creativity of those who are most knowledgeable about our business: our own people.
We want two seemingly mutually exclusive things: a process we can manage and control, but a process that places no constraints upon our creativity. We need a process for the suits and the muses, so to speak.
I propose that a repeatable methodology for innovation looks something like this:
For the suits (by which I mean our professional management), we have a clear project plan with four distinct steps. We can take one step at a time – literally – investing only incrementally, and after each step, we can make a go/no-go decision to proceed to the next step. We can stop the process at any point without consequence. At the conclusion of the final workshop, we receive a business proposal for a project with defined scope, investment, and expected return, and then we make a go/no-go decision on that.
The only compromise for the suits: because innovation is essentially a creative endeavor, we must acknowledge that we sometimes need to iterate back to an earlier step, if that’s where our findings lead us (this happens more often than you think – it’s normal, it’s okay, and it’s not a failure or a wasted effort).
For the muses (by which I mean our creative problem-solving team), we provide plenty of room to unleash their imaginations. Each workshop can be executed using whatever techniques, resources, or complementary team members are available. No idea is a bad idea. The muses are free to apply the very latest techniques (for example, Design Thinking) in the pursuit of producing the most innovative ideas possible.
[Who’s a muse? Anyone inside or outside your company with an interest on the topic under study. It doesn’t take a genius – if you can offer an informed opinion, you can participate in innovation. A well-facilitated Design Thinking workshop will pull creativity out of even the most reserved participants.]
The only compromise for the muses: the methodology requires deliverables after each workshop. This is not an open-ended, unstructured, undirected exercise. We need to demonstrate progress at each step. I will outline the deliverables and the workshops in the next sections.
Step 1 – Executive Workshop
- Duration: 2-4 hours
- Participants: Executive sponsors, Facilitator
- Deliverable: Design Challenge
Suits and muses agree: one of the most difficult requests in business, even for creative people, is “show me something innovative.” This type of direction is simply too vague to be of use to anyone.
The opposite is also true. If you give your innovation team direction that is too specific, then perhaps the problem under study doesn’t require an innovation team to begin with! If you already know both the problem and the solution, then … just implement the solution and move on, yes?
But the real danger of overly specific direction is that it can absolutely strangle real innovation. If you say to your innovation team, “show me a new mobile app design for field inspectors,” then, whether you intended to or not, you’ve put your innovation team in a box. You’ve constrained them. The only thing they can provide you is a mobile app design. You’ve closed the doors on everything else by being too specific in your direction.
Instead try asking something like: “show me how we might optimize field inspections.” You’ve indicated your desired outcome but provided no further direction – and not even the suggestion of a solution. The innovation team is free to solve the problem in the most innovative way possible – which may or may not involve mobile apps (or field inspectors or even field inspections themselves, for that matter).
The best way to initiate innovation is to come up with a “Goldilocks” type problem statement: not too vague, not too specific. This statement, usually one or two sentences, is called a Design Challenge, and it’s the sole deliverable from the Executive Workshop.
The Executive Workshop is, as you might imagine, a facilitated discussion among your company’s senior executives. Most workshops are brief, because most executives can articulate their aspirational goals (for new business models, new revenue streams, etc.) or they can identify their vulnerabilities (competitive threats, underperforming processes, etc.) fairly quickly. A good facilitator can help the group select a priority area and hammer out a Design Challenge statement for the innovation team to work on.
If the Design Challenge appears to be desirable, feasible, viable, and sufficiently ambitious, then the executives may allocate time and resources to proceed to the next step – the Challenge Workshop.
Step 2 – Challenge Workshop
- Duration: 6-8 hours minimum (varies considerably)
- Participants: Innovation team, Facilitator
- Deliverable: Point of View
As business people, subject to normal time pressures, our natural response to a challenge is to offer an immediate solution. We rely upon our assumptions and slot the challenge into preconceived models of how our business, the industry, or the world in general works, and we shout out the first solution of sufficiently high probability of success that occurs to us. This is fine for many types of problems, but not if we’re trying to produce something innovative.
The goal of the Challenge Workshop is to interrupt that leap to a conclusion, and start a directed search for something new. We are, after all, interested in innovation, and we shouldn’t expect to find that in a knee-jerk, snap-judgment conclusion.
During the Challenge Workshop (again, a facilitated workshop), the innovation team seeks only to understand the Design Challenge in much more detail. They are not trying to solve the problem – they are trying to understand the problem. (“Who is involved in field inspections?” “Who is affected?” “How do field inspections work?” “What makes them difficult – or easy?” “What larger problem are field inspections supposed to solve?”) This might seem obvious, but, if you’re like me, you’re amazed by the number of people who try to solve business problems without bothering to understand them first.
At the conclusion of the workshop, through a combination of research, observation, and other analysis, the innovation team will replace assumptions about the problem under study with fact-based understanding, usually as seen through the eyes of one of the people involved (often represented as a “persona”).
The main deliverable of the workshop is a Point of View (POV). The POV is a more detailed expression of the Design Challenge, as seen from a persona’s perspective. The POV often contains unexpected or even startling insights about the true nature of the problem as well as the characteristics (but not the particulars) of the solution.
The Challenge Workshop requires tremendous empathy and tremendous discipline not to leap into “solutions mode.” Solutions are coming – in the next step, the Solution Workshop.
Step 3 – Solution Workshop
- Duration: 6-8 hours minimum, varies considerably
- Participants: Innovation team, Facilitator
- Deliverable: Prototype, Proposal with ROI
If the sponsoring executives agree that an innovative solution may arise from solving the business problem defined in the POV (itself a refined definition of the original Design Challenge), they may allocate time and resources to the Solution Workshop.
The Solution Workshop is in some ways the easiest step of the methodology. The innovation team is presented with the detailed problem specified by the POV, and they are – at last! – free to generate creative solutions to that problem. Depending on the nature of the solutions, the innovation team may be supplemented with engineering or product-design experts.
During the (once again, facilitated) workshop, the participants brainstorm solutions to the problem, select the best ideas, and create a low-fidelity prototype of the solution. They don’t have to build the complete and final solution – they just need to design enough of it to have two important conversations.
The first conversation is to test the solution with its proposed users, to prove out the solution concept, to gather feedback for improvement, and to quantify the potential benefits associated with the solution.
The second conversation is to provide enough detail to the rest of the business to estimate the proposed costs to realize a full production version of the solution.
The final deliverable of the Solution Workshop is a proposal – which is also the final step in our methodology.
Step 4 – Proposal
As an executive sponsor, you’ve identified a high-value area for study and assigned an innovation team. The team has wallowed in the details of the problem and come up with a detailed, insightful, facts-based understanding. They have subsequently defined and focus-group-tested a prototype solution, and now they’re presenting you that prototype together with a serious business proposal with estimated benefits and costs.
And now, suddenly, “innovation” – that elusive chimera – is sitting right there on your desk, ready to implement, awaiting approval.
You can evaluate the proposal and allocate appropriate time and resources just like any other project (after all, as an executive, that’s one of your competencies).
You don’t have to rely on outsiders with disruptive ideas to produce innovation in your business. Innovation is not beyond the reach of mere mortals, or somehow reserved for a creative elite.
Innovation can be a repeatable business process, like so many other processes your business performs every day, and the tools and training needed are accessible to anyone willing to make the effort.
And, like those other processes, with enough commitment, enough time and effort, and enough practice … innovation will eventually become just another one of your many competencies.
Learn more about innovation that works in 4 Ways to Digitally Disrupt Your Business Without Destroying It.