Innovation: It's Not Magical -- It's Practical

06/18/2015 06:21 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016

It seems like "innovation" -- in business, in technology, in client service -- is such a hot topic it manages to span the gamut from meaningless to mystical. Everybody wants it. We're in awe of it. But nobody can define exactly what it is. It's positioned as fundamental to business success, but at the same time something elusive and mysterious, flowing from the minds of a select few visionaries.

For today's business leaders -- whether they are in the C-suite of a Fortune 50 company, or launching their own scrappy startup with a small team of friends, or even the head of a household -- it is so important to understand that the common perception of innovation is only half right.

Yes, absolutely: innovation is indeed critical to driving great wins and business success.

But the idea that innovation can only come from a select few is not only fundamentally inaccurate -- it's totally self-defeating. Why structure your culture around the belief that a crucial component to success is bestowed only upon one-in-a-million among us?

I can't imagine a bigger de-motivator. It's a belief that abdicates the responsibility to think big -- taking it off the table almost completely. Nothing will hamper an organization's ability to create new and innovative solutions faster than the belief that to do so is a rare gift.

Instead, embrace and inspire acceptance of one very simple truth: Innovation is not magical. It's practical.

The thinking and effort that shepherds a great idea into a real-world solution is a process. And that process is built upon -- and driven by -- two critical daily decisions: sustained focus and a willingness to speak up. One without the other achieves nothing. But, together, they create a powerful system of originality and practicality.

The key word here is "practicality."

Though often overlooked and overshadowed by creativity, it's the practicality of a solution that determines whether or not it is really innovative. And to be practical, an idea must be transformative to the many, not just the select few.

Take the iPhone, for example.

With more than 700 million sold, few innovations have been more widely adopted than the iPhone. Upon launch, Steve Jobs said he aspired to capture one percent of the world market. Today, iPhone sales account for almost 20 percent.

The iPhone delivers groundbreaking technology and beautiful design, presented to consumers via a brilliantly executed marketing campaign. But at its heart, it offers a simple solution to a problem -- it allows users to carry one device rather than three. It provides a phone, music player and internet access, all in one intuitive, attractive, streamlined package.

For all the reverence and rightful respect Jobs earned as a visionary, his vision for Apple products was extremely practical. So practical and intuitive, in fact, that a child can pick one up and figure it out in no time at all.

I'm not saying that you need to come up with the next iPhone to be innovative. But rather that the incredible appeal of the iPhone comes from the beautiful simplicity of its solution. That clarity is something we can all achieve. All we need is a powerful commitment to focus.

Don't settle for a superficial understanding of a challenge. (And don't kid yourself that will suffice.) Execute with total focus on the job at hand -- but be sure that execution is informed by deep knowledge.

Start with a sincere and concerted effort to understand the problem or opportunity you face, and -- importantly -- all the conditions that created it.

As you do this, allow yourself the freedom to think freely. If you want to create an innovative solution, don't build out from the solution. Start with the challenge and build in.

To find the problem, look to the stakeholders. It doesn't matter if it is a target audience, an internal team of direct reports, a customer base, a powerful client or even your spouse and children. There are innovative, creative solutions to every obstacle we face in our lives.

What challenges do those stakeholders face? What daily realities must they contend with that could be simplified? How can we help them eliminate a step, a chore, a duplicative action that slows them down? How can we be of better service to them?

Ask yourself these questions daily. But also ask your colleagues, your manager, your teammates and friends. Input drives insights, and it is through creating dialogue around a solution that innovation emerges.

And once it does, you must give voice to your thoughts. I can't emphasize this enough: you must speak up.

Have you ever had an idea that you failed to act on, only to see it launched to great success a week, month or year later? Me too. It's painful. But what a great illustration of how anyone can be innovative, and why speaking up is so critical.

All great solutions start with a very simple leap of faith. One person steps up and says something -- even though they may be afraid of the response, or unsure of how their idea will be received.

Make that leap of faith today.

Immerse yourself in knowledge of your most pressing challenge. Then, make a commitment to tell at least one other person -- a manager, a teammate, a friend -- about the ideas that come to you. Especially the stickiest ones, the ones that aggravate or nag at you. Please, get them out of your head and into the light where they can be considered.

Maybe they're nothing. And if they are, that's okay! Don't worry: You'll have plenty more.

But maybe they're something. And maybe -- just maybe -- they're extraordinary.

Either way, the ideas you share will inspire other ideas -- and inspire others to share theirs as well. Let this process of quiet focus and open idea sharing become a habit and a daily practice. If you do, you will soon find that innovation is not something elusive that you chase, but something abundant that you receive -- day in, day out -- almost effortlessly.