Innovate or die. Innovate for survival. If you don’t innovate, you’re yesterday’s news.
You’ve heard it all before. You’ve read the Harvard Business Review articles and the glossy vendor brochures; you’ve attended the events. However, the very definition of being innovative is to do something that others have not done, so it is never going to be easy.
In fact, the term “innovation” has fallen into the same trap as Big Data: Everybody knows it’s important; everybody knows it needs to be done; few are sure how to do it.
We need innovation. From the invention of the wheel, the steam engine, the printing press, the first vacuum tube computer, and the absolutely amazing Apple CarPlay feature in my car, innovation has been the key driver in human experience since we first walked this earth. I look forward to the day when I can yell, “HEY SIRI, DRIVE ME HOME AND PICK UP MY DRY CLEANING!” while I take a nap.
But here is the main challenge: For most of us, innovation is not something we do on a day-to-day basis. This world runs on the basis of consistency—the trains run on schedule. Your electricity flows every time you flick the switch. The financial markets expect you to report your figures in the same way quarter after quarter, year after year.
While innovation is cool, if most of us are not engaged in keeping the lights on, the world will be a very chaotic, unreliable place.
So I think it is a pretty safe bet that you, gentle reader, will spend at least 70% of your time keeping things running in your business or organisation. That certainly holds true for me. So to innovate, you will need to have a different mindset and have the tools to do it.
I have covered the mindset part in a past article, so I’ll focus on the tools in this article. I’ll start by saying something that might sound blasphemous given that I work in a software company whose solution to all of the world’s problems is to sell more software: Buying more software might not help you innovate.
Yes, we do have some great tools to help you innovate, and we do offer the latest in in-memory, predictive analytics, and machine learning technologies. But without the right use case or the right idea to apply them to, these are just like Formula One cars sitting in your garage without any circuits to drive them on.
And it’s not like you need to wait to have the shiniest, newest tools to innovate. Some of the most innovative approaches to business I have seen have been done with simple or even tools: an amazing 50-MB Excel spreadsheet running asset maintenance scheduling for a major aluminium smelter, a very clever custom front-end to an ERP system that made educated guesses on user input written entirely in Visual Basic (this was in the late ’90s) and this chess game, written in 1 Kbyte of RAM.
Benjamin Franklin had only a kite and a key on his way to inventing the lightning rod. You need the spark, you need the idea, you need the human element behind the technology.
Now much smarter people than myself have written far more eloquently on how to spark the creativity in your team so I won’t go over that here. Suffice to say that I really like this article, which argues that it’s not that we don’t get good ideas—the problem is that we are not very good at noticing the good ones when they come up. Something for you to ponder.
Once you have the right idea, you come up against the second challenge: How to make it a reality? Often you don’t know what is even possible, and too many ideas die and get tossed into the “too hard” basket. Others use the wrong technology when they are implemented and therefore fail to thrive. Any of you retro-gaming fans out there remember the Nintendo Virtual Boy?
To make innovation real, there needs to be a marriage between technology and creative thinking. One needs to fuel and spark the other. You need to talk to people who can draw ideas out of you and your team and who are familiar enough with the technology to guide you to a feasible outcome.
One good way to spark creative thinking is to attend design thinking workshops. If you have never been involved in one of these workshops, everybody goes around a room and covers the walls with Post-It notes full of their hopes and dreams (it’s actually more structured than that, but you get the idea).
So before we even talk about technology, we work with our customers in these workshops to flesh out their requirements and use cases. Only after that do we work with them to build a prototype that meets their requirements, and through an iterative process, we deliver something that they can immediately use.
We have had much success with this approach, but the moral of the story is not that you should buy the right software (although I hope that you do)—it is that you need to have the right idea, specifications, and use case before you write the first line of code or buy additional rack space on the data center. Live long and innovate!
So, can you buy innovation? Yes, but only if you get the whole package, including the human element and creativity, to go along with the technology and cool stuff. Talk to the right people, and don’t forget: Until you have the right idea, all the best apps and tools in the world are just toys.
For more on fostering workplace innovation, see Defining Next Practice For The Intelligent Enterprise.