Avoiding Key Mistakes on the Way to Innovation

The bottom line is that because nation-states, commercial enterprises, and almost any group of humans, are at their most basic nature competitive; it will be the most innovative who thrive.
04/19/2012 12:15 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2012

Innovation. We trip over the word everywhere we go these days. We consistently hear that it's important, we need more of it, that it's the life blood of our organizations and our economy. Google searches on anything to do with innovation are up significantly over the last five years. Ten years ago there were about five conferences each year globally focused on innovation. Now there are five a week. Something is going on. But what exactly? Is this just one of those periodic cultural fascinations or is there something fundamental occurring?

A historic truth for humanity is that making things better, or inventing new things that others appreciate, is the primary path to personal -- and organizational -- gain. Innovation is most broadly defined as some form of "newness" which adds value. If we're good at it, we are more successful. If we're not, we stagnate. This is a reality whether you are trying to improve battery life for electric cars, create better resource utilization in health care, strengthen education methods, or have a stronger impact as a marriage therapist. More innovative marketing strategies grow share. More innovative solutions to customer needs create offerings that sell better. Innovations in organizational leadership are energizing more productive employees. The bottom line is that because nation-states, commercial enterprises, and almost any group of humans, are at their most basic nature competitive; it will be the most innovative who thrive.

So, much like there was an intensified interest in "quality" a few decades ago which created competitive advantage in industry for first adopters, there is now this same dynamic occurring with respect to innovation. Some will see it as a distracting "flavor of the times" and ignore it, just as American industry ignored Edward Deming's guidance and lost market share to Japan. Largely because the post-war island nation widely adopted Deming's advice to focus on quality to improve productivity and reduce expenses. When Ford finally paid attention, they moved from three billion in losses between 1979 and 1982, to being the most profitable American car company in 1986. It's no surprise that the automotive company with a leadership culture capable of being first to see the opportunity in a new and improved way of working would be the only US automotive giant to not take bailout money from the federal government three decades later.

It will be the organizations which move innovation from a plaque on the wall into their processes, people and culture that will be gaining the next competitive high ground. It will be those who build and sustain a culture of innovation who will garner a bigger share of success over the long haul. Thanks to more than 60 years of focused research, it's possible to do so without a lot of wasted effort.

Where Deming is credited as a lone evangelist for quality, there are dozens of well-respected researchers and practitioners in the creativity and innovation area. Göran Ekvall, of the University of Lund, Sweden, helped us understand the organizational climate that builds toward an innovation culture. Sid Parnes and Alex Osborn, founders of the Creative Education Foundation, clarified the natural human process of creativity and how to improve it in ourselves and others. Creativity Researcher Mel Rhodes described the levers to pull if we want to build a more innovative organization and Teresa Amabile, of Harvard Business School, developed a way to measure progress in creating a culture supportive of innovation. Recently, Gerard Puccio, Chair and Professor - International Center for Studies of Creativity at Buffalo State, has helped us understand individual preferences in the creative process that leads to innovation and how to leverage those differences well. We don't have to move blindly along the path to innovation excellence. We just have to find the well-researched truth amidst the noise.

An examination of Rhodes' guidance points to a smart way forward, and thankfully helps to illuminate the unfortunate traps that so many organizations are falling into today. He demonstrated that success requires a focus on four things: People, Process, Products and Press. By "press" he meant the organizational climate that "presses" upon people and their work, either helping or hindering their creativity. By "product", he meant the focus on what is being offered to the world by the organization, constantly trying to get it "more right." "Process" is the sum of structured systems that drive "new and improved" through the organization, or inhibit it. "People" are always the real key, as all innovation has its beginning in a human mind. Efforts to gain innovation advantage often start in Product or Process, and can yield a quick win, but are not sustainable without efforts to improve the human resource.

So in the end, we'll have to focus on the people dynamic to be successful with innovation in any sustained way. Here too, there is great research and decades of practical experience to guide our efforts. Probably the oldest and wisest player in this is the Creative Education Foundation and the collective knowledge of its membership group. Long before innovation was the word of the day, this group, made up of researchers and practitioners in the area of creative thinking, innovation and organizational development, found the wise path forward. Founded by Osborn and Parnes in the 1950s, the group hosts a conference each year -- The Creative Problem Solving Institute -- which has become the must-do pilgrimage for any want-to-be innovation expert. It and its spin-offs around the world are the first conferences fully focused on the four P's, and on the individual improvements in creative thinking that lead to innovation. It has a tight partnership with the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College where one can pursue advanced study in creativity and change leadership.

To get people fully realizing their creative potential, one must find and remove the barriers to creative thinking, and then give them the cognitive skills and tools to fully leverage their own thinking and the creative potential of productive collaboration. An individual's creative thought is, at its most basic, the connection of previously unconnected thoughts. Creativity is doing something with those thoughts such that it can be known to another human being in some way. As human beings then collaborate to bring this creativity forward in the world, we call it innovation when it somehow produces value. If we want more innovation, we have to help people collaborate effectively around their individual creative thinking potential. Everything else we do to improve product pipelines, strengthen innovation processes, and affect the cultural supports, is ultimately to have an effect on the movement of the potential of an individual's creative thoughts into a value producing reality.

Yes, individual creative potential can be improved. Help your people learn to use their minds better, then build the culture and processes to support them, and they'll generate valuable innovation again and again. Then you've moved innovation from a short-term cultural fascination to a fundamental way of functioning.