Innovation is a funny thing…there are lots of awesome innovative ideas that give us the chance to do things in better ways. Coming up with an innovative idea, however, isn’t nearly the same thing as true innovation. There’s a significant disconnect, in fact, between developing new ideas and changing the landscape in meaningful, measurable ways. This is exactly why Lean, Six Sigma and corporate innovation initiatives, while bubbling along in the background, haven’t produced a level of innovation that many are writing home about. This is exactly why superior products (Sony Betamax is the classic example) don’t survive over lesser competition.
Here’s the point:
Meaningful innovation takes a leading edge idea and makes it easy to adopt and significantly profitable.
“Better” isn’t enough for success. “Much better” may not be either. In the real world, innovation is guided and constrained by rules and boundaries. The smartest innovators understand this and work within those constraints while the most frustrated innovators rail at the system instead. Innovation, therefore, is equal parts creativity and pragmatism.
Inhibitors of innovation
Rules and constraints come in many forms that put limits on creativity, adoption and change. Here are three top candidates:
Politically feasibility – Does the political environment allow change and accept new ideas? Plenty of work environments are hostile to change for a wide variety of reasons that often trace their roots to the existing power structure. Don’t underestimate egos. Don’t underestimate laziness, either.
Upfront cost – Does adoption require cost or human effort that makes it difficult to justify? Small businesses or those operating with tight budgets often can’t fund even a clever innovation.
Regulation – External and even internal regulations form barriers to doing things in better ways. In finance, especially, the rules to prevent fraud or excess risk are certainly inhibitors of innovation.
Facilitators of innovation
Just like inhibitors, there are overlooked ways to foster innovation and find greater success.
Hard work - Innovation isn’t an issue of luck. High productivity has the benefit of earning positive attention and respect that makes new ideas more likely to rise to the top. A poorly respected innovator is unlikely to be a thought leader or organizational influencer and even their best ideas will be ignored. Tough but very true.
Tough problems - Innovation focused on simple issues isn’t meaningful. Innovation focused on the biggest problems leads to attention, funding and broad support. Finding those tough problems isn’t a matter of luck, either. The tough problems are found alongside expertise that requires investigation. It means having a network that brings an innovator into contact those problems and also a network for advice, ideas and context.
Resourcefulness - Just as above, innovation requires pulling together the best ideas across the best people and implementing them in the wisest fashion. Piecing together the components of innovation is an exercise in resourcefulness that pulls together people, technology and techniques in creative ways.
Big and small picture – Many big problems are made up of a series of small problems. The path to a big innovation often involves breaking down a bigger problem into its parts and solving at the lower level first.
Situational awareness – Innovation, while constrained by rules and boundaries, doesn’t need to accept every rule or boundary as absolute. Here’s the tricky part — innovation requires changing the rules and going beyond the boundaries in the right circumstances. A great innovator knows when to stay inside the system and when to disrupt. This may be the hardest aspect of innovation to explain or instill.
Innovation is problem solving
Did you notice creativity wasn’t mentioned specifically? That’s because creativity is reasonable easy to find. Innovation involves taking creativity and making it actionable and, ultimately, sticky. SOMA in San Francisco and other hubs of innovation around the world are focused on exactly this challenge…solving big problems by taking leading edge ideas and making them wildly profitable. That’s the entire premise of the venture capitalist role and the reason an entrepreneur rarely has just one idea — there’s a formula for innovation that goes far beyond creativity.