Innovate or Die?

Innovation is a popular topic among many leaders these days, even though it has made its mark in history from as far back as the invention of the wheel and the discovery of fire. Innovation has also been the central catalyst of invention and change for many Fortune 500 companies over the last 100 years. Minnesota is home to many innovative companies; 3M, General Mills, and Medtronic just to name a few. To some of these companies invention and change are integrated in to their culture.

However, there are many other companies that routinely enhance their products and services by spending millions on research and development efforts to only produce something that is obvious or mainstream. Yet the true innovator knows that real invention takes place beyond the obvious. Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked the people what they wanted – they would have said faster horses.” So, what makes some organizations more ready for innovation than others?

First, it is important to understand what innovation is. Innovation is defined as “something new” or “the introduction of a new thing or method.” It is impossible to know how many new inventions occurred in 2013. But, the research shows that had over 1 Million visitors to its web site over the last year and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has had an increase of 6.6 times more the submissions in design patents since 1965.

While 3M created a wonderful business model that embraced innovation from every angle; starting initially with the manufacturing of various types of sandpaper and evolving to create adhesives, Post-It Notes, reflective materials, and even moonboots with chemical adverse soles. General Mills’ inventive thinkers created the first “Space Food Sticks” for NASA astronauts back in 1962 and today they host an all weekend event to engage their internal employees in an “intrapreneurship”; a three day event to create new ideas which are then presented to leadership. As for Medtronic, they have established a new Innovation Center of Excellence in Shanghai, China to showcase all their medical devices.

In order to get a closer look at innovation from the viewpoint of the experts let’s focus on several key web related inventions from the last few years. Twitter is perhaps the most phenomenal social media brand on the web today and its stock just went public. Who knew that a small boy from Detroit who was fascinated with the short and fast dispatch messages from the emergency arena could lend the same service to the broader public?  Jack Dorsey knew as he developed his business model to show that the 140 character limitation, based on his dispatch messaging research, could be beneficial and fun for everyone in the entire world.

Likewise, there was Kevin Systrom who worked at Google for several years. Upon leaving Google he co-founded Instagram in 2012. Instagram is a service for sharing instant photos with messages to the web. Systrom sold it to Facebook for $1 Billion in cash and stock.

These examples clarify a great deal when it comes to understanding the difference between innovation and strategy, or whether innovation is embedded in an organization’s overall strategy or not. While strategy is often confined to changes that result in better “value” to the customers through making better business choices. Innovation is more about discovering that next best thing, a thing we didn’t even know we needed until there was that eureka moment of discovery… that moment when the team realized that what they created would be of value to others. While both innovation and strategy are associated with vision, only innovation brings about something extraordinary.

Many organizations realize that innovation is a means to address new ways to be more effective and efficient. Yet, on the other hand they also realize that as one problem is solved it creates space for another. Yet, these changes often bring about optimizations that lend toward increased levels of organizational maturity. And in an organization that continues to evolve and change that ability to adapt is key, as innovation brings out the tools that provide the means and not an end.

Keeping things as simple as possible is the primary rule when it comes to innovation.  Another rule is remembering that the idea of learning while doing is part of the grand picture; a picture that allows for full transparency of the entire project from the point of access to sponsorship to visibility in the market. Plus, recent research around innovation has uncovered that too many layers of hierarchy often leads to the beginning of failure.

Many innovation organizations know that they have to watch for those predictable benefits today while also watching for the unpredictive benefits of tomorrow as those unusual unexpected ideas surface out of the same black hole as those planned expected ideas. Companies like Google know that innovation is liberating, empowering, that it scales down hierarchy, and that it generates productivity along with dissatisfaction of the “status quo”.

The organization’s ability to believe in itself, to do good work for a good reason, is where innovation becomes a bit ambiguous. As often only half of all companies who attempt to be innovative feel their company’s culture supported their innovation strategy.

In fact, for innovation to work, it is imperative that everyone agrees that innovation is important to the organization.  The private sector knows this better than the public sector, as the private sector has that extra incentive known as “competition” to deal with. Where the public sector will always be there to offer products and services to the citizens, the private sector companies could be here today and gone tomorrow; like Blockbuster, Kodak, and US Steel.

Trying to embed innovation in a culture that never felt innovative is a big challenge. Generally, there are only two things that can really bring significant change to an organization’s culture. One is to change the organizations foundational platform and reform everything. The other is to gain full support of the top executives; every chief who is a leader: CEO, CIO, COO, CFO….needs to convey that message of innovation.

The other big concern, that most organizations find challenging, is the fact that when you create an open innovation forum the organization may fail. Failure is a big concern because no one wants to fail, and like all the other barriers that come as part of the next challenge, failing is often considered to be one of those things that are important to avoid. Avoiding failure is not an approach that works well.

When wanting to innovate, the organization that accepts failure and learns to adapt to what is being learned is going to realize more success. Often it is all about having that conversation, what does success look like? If we do not achieve the result needed for success, is it a failure? Failure needs to be part of the Innovation picture, just like success is.

Is it fair to say, the organization’s culture will be a culture of risk and innovation, or it will be a culture of no risk and no innovation? Or can we say that there will be degrees of failure, just as there are degrees of success? It is, after all, all a matter of what is culturally acceptable. Edison said he failed hundreds of times before he found the right filament for what is now known as the light bulb (which is an icon symbol for ideas). So, to answer what makes some organizations more ready for innovation than others? It is their willingness to look upon failure as a moment for discovery.

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