5 Catalysts to Innovation

THE WAY THINGS COULD BE?

Our two previous posts have focused on common barriers to innovation, so it seemed only logical to share some of our observations as to how organizations have overcome these barriers by leveraging various catalysts or “enablers” to innovative thought and behavior.

But be advised, these methods require strong and empowering leadership to lay out the market constraints, make clear the threats from the changing environment and the opportunities that may arise, and provide the amnesty to take a risk to put ideas and observations on the table.

Necessity – “the mother of invention”
When Xerox PARC created the mouse, it was simply amazing. And it cost $300 to build and only worked for a few weeks, but they had a generous budget so it was okay. Yet to make the mouse truly innovative required something quite different: constraints. Steve Jobs had the vision to add the constraints: the mouse must be buildable for under $15 and operate reliably for at least two years.

For successful innovation, you need people to seek out the real-world constraints that must be respected in order to actualize the idea. Until the idea can work within the constraints — like Apple’s mouse — it is still in the germination stage, not yet a true innovation.

“Freedom is just another word for nothing to lose”
It’s often easier to try something new or innovative, and to risk failure, when the status quo looks pretty untenable. As the saying goes, never waste a crisis, and if you don’t think you have one, look further around you. Change is inevitable; a threat is always on its way.

For example, one company observed that when their very survival was at risk, they began to implement a program of Continuous Improvement that called on everyone to contribute innovative implementable ideas. Because they had to develop new and better ways of operating, they did!

Similarly, a start-up company with few resources must innovate or quickly wither away. Or an established organization might need to make innovative changes due to operational disruption. For example, if the system or tool or supplier or technology they are using is going away or changing, it is a good time to rethink the work entirely.

It’s important to recognize that leaders must provide amnesty to reduce the risk of sharing new ideas when making these types of innovative changes.

It’s easier to think outside the box when you are from outside the box
Outsiders often come up with the best innovations, because they have no ties to the status quo. But outsiders often have a difficult time effecting real change because they are outsiders. A senior manager of a once innovative company wryly observed, “We say we like to bring in outsiders with fresh ideas, but when they share them we explain that’s not the way we do it here.”

Know the market; know your customers — internal as well as external
Market instincts are more valuable than technological know-how or financial heft. For example, in Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating article in The New Yorker, Creation Myth — Xerox PARC, Apple, and Creation of the Mouse, he suggests that Xerox could never have capitalized on the mouse because they did not have the instincts for the consumer market. They had the technological talent, but that was simply not enough; personal computing is a consumer market and Xerox’s reservoir of market instincts was for commercial enterprises. Steve Jobs knew the consumer market. Similarly, Cisco was forced to close down its Flip video and HP pulled out of the tablet market — both retreated from consumer markets back to their core markets.

Process innovation also requires getting close to the customers. To be able to innovate work processes, you must go to the work. ‘Go to the Gemba (or work place),’ is the Toyota mantra. Asking customers what they need or want is simply not going to be enough. They cannot innovate for you — you must go and watch them use your product to really understand the market. You must go and watch the work flow in order to understand the processes and the problems that workers grapple with. You must see for yourself in order to envision a better product or process.

Imagine Perfection
Last but not least, to foster process innovation summon the courage to acknowledge the deep areas of waste that are part of our standard work. We all have this: inspection or rework or moving or waiting that is so intrinsically a part of the way we work that we cannot envision the work without it. Because we cannot immediately think of any possible alternatives, we look the other way and thus we cannot innovate.

Summon the courage to put that waste on the table, calling it what it is. We have seen remarkable feats of innovation inspired by this simple act — recognizing waste for what it is. Go ahead and imagine the process without the steps that add no real value — that just compensate for a flaw somewhere in the process — and then take the time to search for ways to get to that vision. Imagine perfection or the way things could or should be if everything was right.

“Imagineer!”