Innovation is as American as apple pie. Consider that as of the writing of this post, there are 69,665 books for sale on Amazon on the topic of innovation. Why is it that something so favored, of so much apparent interest, and so linked to growth is so hard to make happen?
We all know that innovation is easy to talk about, hard to deliver. But what it takes to move from hype, to execution, to real results comes down to just four basic practices. Focus on these and you will make progress. Cannot effect change wherever you are in your career as an innovator? Look for evidence of these practices in your next move.
I've conducted dozens of interviews over the past several months with business executives, investors and advisers across financial services, healthcare, retail and media - from start-ups to mature companies. I've seen a pattern of what happens when innovation shows up in results, and the innovation dead-ends created when any of the four practices are absent.
- Be open and willing to let go. The more you let go, let others in on the innovation journey, and stay really open to differences of opinion and perspective, the more good things will happen. Heavy-handed control stifles innovation. The leadership practices of your team will define the level of openness experienced by the broader organization, and will affect their willingness to grow new ideas into new business opportunities. In a truly customer-centric culture, employees will want to see that there is transparent and open dialog with customers. Employees will understand business drivers and priorities. Employees will feel empowered to bring customer insight and business priorities together to pursue smart ways to deliver increasing value. That's a sign of innovation potential.
- Be intensely focused and disciplined around the right everyday process. Letting go does not mean losing focus. It doesn't mean letting a thousand flowers bloom. Letting go balanced with the everyday processes that are right for innovation will create structure that allows a team to make opportunity real. Innovation processes reflect a discipline that is customized for this unique work. Lifting processes from the analog world, cutting and pasting them onto your innovation journey, will not work. Almost any mature business will face this challenge: how to sidestep embedded processes, often engineered for predictability and reliability, to conduct in-market pilots that allow for the unpredictable - for true discovery, iteration and learning. That's evidence of innovation leadership.
- Be rigorous, but avoid succumbing to rigor mortis. Like any good habit, focus and discipline applied to an extreme can become a chokehold. Of course there is incredible rigor - business cases, resource management, strategic decisions, metrics - that make innovation happen. The difference is this: great innovators avoid getting so caught up in what drove past success, they get trapped by that past. Choose your metrics giving consideration to the need to answer just two essential questions: (1) is there a unit profit model? and (2) is your idea sufficiently scalable? That's Analytics 3.0.
- Be driven by insights about your customers, partners and employees, and show empathy. In a world where "big data" is the big new buzzword, feelings do still matter. Emotion, not rational MBA-style analytics, is an amazingly strong driver of people's choices, beliefs and decisions. While perhaps not easily quantifiable in the spreadsheets and tables that seem to dominate the business world, empathy and insight translate into business impact that constantly manifests itself in results. In fact, I don't think great innovation can happen without them. That's the reality of innovation.