Hurry up and innovate

edison3.jpg I have to admit, I’ve always excelled more at the perspiration vs. inspiration side of the innovation equation.  And if Edison was correct, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 

I personally do not tend to have many ideas but, I like to think I am quick to recognize them when others have them.  So you can imagine my dismay when I actually had an idea myself about a year back.  Turns out that it was a pretty obvious one though, since immediately after I started thinking/talking about it I found that others had not only been thinking the same but were already building it (doh!).  So maybe it was less an idea and more of a memory of something I had read but not really understood or something.  A bit like when you have seen photos in your youth and later are not sure if you actually have the memory or if you have just inserted yourself into someone elses memory from looking at the photo and hearing them tell the story.

Anyway, lately I’ve been thinking and reading a bit on the process of innovation.  I was even fortunate enough to attend an event specifically intending to foster innovation (and ideation, which was one of the key things I brought back from the event, a new word in my vocabulary, which, while assures me this is a word, I still feel that it sounds a bit fake). 

It turns out that I am not alone in my feeling that I am not innovative.  If you ask people to rate themselves as innovators the results are pretty low.  On the other hand, if you ask us if we are problem solvers we are more inclined to say that we are.  And really what is invention if not creative problem solving?  So maybe it is not really innovation we should be pushing for but problem identification.  Here is where it gets interesting (at least to me).  Maybe what we need to be spending more time on is identifying problems that we need to solve and then let loose our creative tendencies toward solving them.  Of course, there are some flaws with thinking it is that easy.  There are some basic human tendencies that stifle us from finding new solutions, even when presented with a problem.

  1. Our education process has taught us to stifle innovation.  As we enter school we are trained that we need to find the “right answer” not the “right question”.  This gets in our way of looking at problems from different perspectives
  2. We are very hierarchical about ideas.  Evidence shows that more senior managers are often unintentionally dismissive of solutions brought forward from those who are lower in the hierarchy
  3. Innovation is often at odds with the rest of our job requirements and especially for managers, we are often dis-incented to support innovation

So how do we foster innovation that is so important for the strategic success of our companies?

  1. Look at our incentive structures.  Are we leveraging goal alignment to help gain visibility and track progress toward innovation?  What we want to do, is make sure that innovation is focused and aligned with our corporate objectives
  2. Identify the key problems that you want to solve.  Essentially putting some structure around where you want to innovate and leveraging the inherent problem solving skills in your staff.
  3. Consider offering some “structured down time” for people to ideate.  Bringing people together, with focused problems to solve, helps to encourage the process 
  4. Leverage social networks and the new web to break down the hierarchical biases so that the organization benefits from the wisdom of the crowds and ideas from all levels are heard
  5. Build on success.  Sounds obvious, but often where we are innovative we do not do a good job in congratulating ourselves and building upon the success.  This lack of recognition and acknowledgement will stifle future innovators from coming forward.

A few weeks back I did have a WIBNI (wouldn’t it be nice if) idea I’m happy to give away for someone to consider bringing to the market.  I had an idea to leverage GPS and cellphone tracking technology to the ski slopes.  Today, you can rent devices to help you track how far you have skied in a day, a season, etc.  I was thinking it would be great if technology was available from my PDA to:

  • Help you find your friends (and kids) on the mountain by giving you a map of the mountain and tracking them on it
  • Help those of us who are “directionally challenged” to easily see the trail-map (and our location on that map) at any time
  • Keep track of your ski stats over time

Anyway, on the off chance that someone out there is thinking of building this kind of plug in application for a mobile device please let me know as I would love to have one.

3 thoughts on “Hurry up and innovate

  1. This post hits home on why innovation doesn’t work out the way we hope in organizations. There’s a great book recently published that discusses this phenomenon as well as others, called, “The Myths of Innovation“, by Scott Berkun (O’Reilly, 2007). In it, he lays out how much of our frustration with innovation comes from many misconceptions/myths that have been taught/sold to us, e.g.:

    The Myth of Epiphany
    We Understand the History of Innovation
    There is a Method for Innovation
    People Love New Ideas
    The Lone Inventor
    Good Ideas Are Hard to Find
    Your Boss Knows More About Innovation Than You
    The Best Ideas Win
    Problems and Solutions
    Innovation Is Always Good

    He starts with each myth, talks about how we ended up thinking that way, and suggests ways to reconsider innovation without that veil of myth.

  2. I was reading this post
    on Marissa Mayer at Google last week & it reminded me of your post. Her #3 (20% of time to do whatever you want) in this post (the order isn’t always the same, I found) addresses your #3 on structured downtime for ideation. Her #5 (share as much info as u can) resonates with your #4 on ideas from all levels. also, her #7 (data is apolitical) reminded me of your #2 problem statement of how we can be very hierarchical about ideas.
    There’s a great video of her talking thru these, too.

    Google: 9 Notions of Innovation

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