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Are you doing innovation wrong? : five tips on how to get innovating

They could be accused of clickbaiting, but when a Google Alert comes up with ‘You are doing innovation wrong’ from Forbes it’s hard to not click the link, especially in an age in where people seem to be clambering to call themselves innovative [quite often without doing anything to justify such a claim]. Brian Solomon gets it, opening his piece outlining the dynamism of the current innovation scene and pointing out the current antidote to sluggish returns and boring brands is – innovation. The natural question is then, how do we get more innovation? If the answer is simply ‘culture,’ the results can be problematic.

… executives often see what’s needed as a cultural shift. “We need a culture of innovation!” and all heads nod—who could possibly argue the opposite choice? And in a time of fundamental change, building an institutional ability to see and seize change is indeed a valuable and beautiful thing. The problem, though, is that framing innovation as a cultural issue typically leads us to focus on its trappings and trimmings instead of its substance.

— – Brian Solomon, Forbes

Solomon proposes something we know all too well, creating businesses or communities that innovate, is less about modelling the look, feel or jargon of the ‘Googles’ or ‘Apples’ of the world and more about modelling the behaviours of these businesses and the individuals within them. Where he possibly goes too far is discounting the idea of an innovative culture as valuable. Growing a culture of innovation is in-part growing a culture of willingness to do things differently, to think with agility and to question outcomes – all these things are vital to innovate.

To be fair, I come to this working in an innovation precinct in a country that prides itself on an established culture of innovation, be it making motorbikes out of washing machine parts or changing the way we do biochemistry. A recent article by the Australian Financial Review “proudly declares that ‘NZ innovation policy is already kicking goals”, featuring Steven Joyce talking enthusiastically about the state of [digital] entrepreneurs: “The big thing is not getting in the way of these young entrepreneurs and actually providing a bit of encouragement, a little bit of help to help them go a bit faster than they otherwise would”.

Perhaps detractors of ‘the culture of innovation’ do so because it can so easily become a buzzword, a soft and floaty thing – mythical almost. And whilst innovation (like creativity) cannot perhaps be forced or constrained it does not simply appear in every loft office with white boards and post-its.

Innovation is serendipity, so you don’t know what people will make.

— Tim Berners Lee

What Solomon suggests is a model of innovation that accepts that innovation is partially serendipity, but sees value in creating the best possible situation for innovative, practical, useful products, solutions and businesses to spring forth – innovation done right.

5 ways to innovate ‘right’

1) Encourage diversity  
Innovation has many starting points, one of these being the intersection of differing viewpoints. Comparing and contrasting schools of thought such as art & science, or using established lenses for thinking applied in different ways are all excellent ways to create breathing space for ideas, or evaluate new spaces for opportunity. In practical terms this relies on countering groupthink or singular perspectives by putting value on diverse hiring, socialising staff and management, and encouraging open dialogue. 

For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate.

— Margaret Heffernan

2) Support, train and cultivate
As Brian Solomon points out: “We don’t expect someone without training to build a discounted cash flow model or develop a marketing segmentation.”  Nor should we expect people not versed in innovation to innovate. Create a model for your business or team that values education. This may be internally, taking learning from previous projects or businesses and pushing these forward into future projects. This could also mean seeking external ways to learn about innovation i.e. through a university or learning institution, or situational learning –  ‘in what situation do we use Lean Canvas?’, ‘in what situation is a scrum the right way to go?’, ‘how do we move failure to flearning?’

3) Focus on all parts of the chain
The idea is only one part of the plan, the execution, learning, iteration and re-deployment are also just as (if not more) important. For this to happen, there must be an emphasis on the process as well as the ideas. Innovation is not ideas, it’s ideas realised. For this to happen agility is needed along with a need to execute – always.

For more on this subject, this talk by Des Traynor on product strategy and customer success is pretty great, outlining a system for product development which provides clarity for points to measure.

4) Value measuring and optimisation
This may seem obvious to some, but measure everything. Measure the breadth of the projects you have, and how they seek to solve the problems you face. Measure how long it takes to complete projects, and what the result is of those projects. If projects fail, measure why – case study and compare to new projects. If projects succeed – measure velocity. Fast Company present an index for measuring innovation for those in the non measuring camp!

5) Establish a culture that encourages the above
The choices above are not the status quo – they are steps outside the realms of thinking of many companies, program directors and managers who crave innovative solutions. You may want to sum up the above as elements of a culture of innovation or you may wish to call it a culture of common sense. You may define them as rules or you may define them as goals. Whatever you call it, establishing a system in which diversity and honesty is encouraged, support and training is given – and learning cultivated. In which you focus on all parts of the chain and give the freedoms to test an iterate before a product or idea is made real, measuring it’s success when it is, like the quest for innovation should be innate in all business, projects or organisations.  

Reading list
You’re doing innovation wrong – Brian Solomon – Forbes | The Rhetoric of Innovation – Henry Doss – Forbes | Weaving the Web – Tim Berners Lee | Dare to disagree – Magaret Heffernan at TED | Des Taynor on Product Strategy and Customer Success at Webstock  | Can Innovation Be Measured –  Faisal Hoque Fast Company

Anya holds an hons degree in political science, a background in digital communications and a belief in the power of open conversation. When Anya is not writing for the GridAKL blog she is helping hone it’s messaging as the GridAKL Brand & Communications Coordinator. See what she is up to by following her on twitter.