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Overcoming the Biggest Barriers to Innovation

06/09/2015 05:40 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016
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Innovation. As a key to competitiveness, everyone is seeking it. Following the typical business- mindset, most search for the process, the seven easy steps to follow, to create innovation that has the greatest impact.

But creativity lies at the heart of innovation. It is innovation's life's breath.

Most companies and corporations utilizing old thinking and processes cannot withstand the requirements that allows for the emergence of creativity that leads to the breakthrough innovation they desire. The creativity itself eludes them.

Good ideas rarely arrive on schedule, and rarely fit into standardized systems or adhere to business-as-usual mindsets. Typical business cultures and approaches are antithetical to the innovation they crave. The search for ever-increasing efficiency and standardization are enemies of the level of creativity required to create innovation.

However, given proper frameworks, along with a change in approach and mindset, businesses can achieve the type of innovation breakthroughs they desire.

1) Redefine efficiency. Business systems are designed for efficiency, with time being a business' most precious commodity. Enlightened leaders and entrepreneurs invest in education, relationships, experimentation, personal growth and health, but these efforts are difficult to quantify, especially as they often don't pay off in a timely way. But this mentality comes into play when approaching creativity as well.

The two things creativity requires most to flourish are time and space. Allowing sufficient time and space for creativity not only to emerge, but to generate a good idea worth pursuing, can be challenging in a world focused on instant gratification and quarterly reports. Building this type of environment whether in a small startup or a large corporation comes from the top. It begins not only by modeling behavior, but by positively reinforcing the value, benefits and sense of urgency of innovation. An organization will then free up the time and space necessary to work for creativity.

2) Measure ROI differently. Revenues, profits, and market share is often the only measures used in organizations. These are easier to quantify than intangibles such as reputation, knowledge, attractiveness to talent, leadership and other assets that make major contributions to the true value of an enterprise. Most innovations that matter are difficult to explain in terms of return on investment. Even those innovations that have the potential to disrupt or create new markets may suffer by comparison when put up against more incremental, or safe, projects as they grind through a standard budgeting process. But by expanding the view of measures and including decision makers in the process of creating those measures, it's possible to avoid the ROI trap.

3) Hold standardization loosely. In a search for efficiency, standardization has become the norm. Many efforts to implement standardization in organizations failed, or failed to produce the results that could have been experienced had whole systems been integrated. For example, as many organizations attempted to implement the Toyota Production System, those naturally geared toward thinking in terms of processes would utilize only the few Principles out of the 14 that focused on standardization and process. Without the supporting culture created by the overlooked principles, results were minimal.

Driven by business requirements and the talent needed to execute them, standardization found it's way into the education system. In his book, "Creative Schools," Sir Ken Robinson has detailed the effects of market principles being applied to education extensively. As standardization have left our schools in dire straights, they are now called to promote "21st century-skills," including creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, and communication and collaboration. These skills are not only difficult to find in the education system, they're just as sparse in overly standardized organizations.

Put simply: standardization does not produce creativity or innovation.

While frameworks and processes can aid the emergence of creativity in a way that makes it more palatable for leadership, applying standardization to creativity will short-circuit creative efforts.

4) Start with people, not technology. Tech and engineering-driven firms commonly begin the innovation journey by looking for a technological breakthrough. Even small startups and companies typically seen as the bastion of hope for the creative, often focus first on developing a new product, technology, or a new idea devised within their own bubble of like- minded individuals. (This often involves a whiteboard.) As they enthusiastically pursue their idea, they later wonder why there's no market for it. Their innovation efforts had many of the right elements, but still fell flat.

Focused on processes and profits, or on the technology itself, occurs by beginning with the wrong end in mind. Peter Drucker warned against this reliance on technology in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. In fact, innovation begins in the same place one begins 'converting need into demand.' It is the birthplace of demand generation. It begins with people, and requires empathy.

While a good idea must also meet pragmatic requirements and be sustainable, the creativity that spurs innovation, and the type of success often associated with it, begins by addressing a problem that makes people's lives better -- often, a problem they don't even know they have. Discovering and solving a human problem, innovation not only meets success - but scales. Innovation doesn't begin with processes and profits. It begins -- and ends -- with people.

5) Ban comparison. (Comparison is an innovation-killer.) Despite branding experts warning against the precarious position a brand builds by pursuing a 'me-too' mentality, many companies are still searching for 'the next iPhone' or the 'next Steve Jobs.'

Innovation, though, is built based on an organizations unique set of strengths and abilities. It is rooted in the authenticity of leadership, and the organization. Attempting to be like Steve Jobs or like Google is destined to produce me-too-like products, services and solutions that can hardly be categorized as innovative.

In the end, seeking innovation for innovation's sake is the surest way for creativity to elude an organization. C.S. Lewis, the theologian and author of the Narnia series, said,

"Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it."

In this case, the truth sought is found in discovering and solving a real-world problem, using authentic strengths and talents of an organization, in the service of real-world people.

Unleashing creativity by creating the right conditions for it to emerge, utilizing frameworks such as design thinking, beginning and maintaining an empathetic focus on people, thinking differently about ROI, and building a culture of creativity leads to innovation that impacts humans.

It all begins, not with process and profit, but people.