Innovation is a much used expression but often it is simply being applied as a general term encompassing any ‘change’ that is being implemented or considered. Implementing procedures or systems borrowed from others is not innovation even though it may be the dissemination of good practice.
Many people have experience of updating systems and procedures to meet changes in the environment when a fresh look at the whole picture reveals that the system or procedure is actually no longer required. Well developed systems and procedures keep staff informed and enable the provision of the high level of services that are demanded. But, the very systems and procedures that keep services on track can also be responsible for stifling the creativity that brings about real innovation. In an environment so heavily systemised, innovation needs rigorous support if it is to survive.
In a world full of procedures, innovation is best seen as an event rather than a process. Processes are used to implement innovation but are separate and distinct from it. It is easy to confuse the two and when this happens what starts out as innovation becomes just another routine.
Real innovation and novel solutions come from creative thinking and not logical thinking. Creativity in routine work cannot be turned on and off like a tap. Innovation ‘events’ need to be one step removed from the issue in order to be truly innovative.
The primary unit of innovation is not the individual; a person is not the basic building block. Rather, it is the network that extends inside (R&D, marketing, manufacturing) and outside (including customers, suppliers, partners, and others). Innovation requires developing and maintaining this network as an open and collaborative force – no easy task considering the complexities of relationships, differing motivations, and differing objectives. Managing effective partnerships within the company and with customers, suppliers, consultants, and everyone who can help you be innovative comprise a core competency of innovation.
Some organisations choose to isolate innovation efforts from its processes to avoid its ‘antibodies’, through stand-alone departments or incubators. However, these stand-alone or incubator innovation initiatives often fail because, in an attempt to isolate the innovators from organisational antibodies, they sever critical links with key resources and ideas.
Innovation is not a linear process: there are some internal elements that appear linear in nature but essentially innovation is an organic process: one which releases human capacity and utilises the brain as far as is humanly possible. The brain is infinitely more powerful than any computer. During their early work, it was well established within NASA that if a spacecraft is manned then on-board computers have one level of backup plus the human. If the spacecraft is unmanned then there are usually nineteen levels of backup replacing the human.
Accepting human thinking superiority, there is, however, one major problem that humans face. This is a very human problem. It is the level of constraint that we allow to be placed on our ways of thinking. Some refer to this as indoctrination, others as a form of ‘hidden curriculum’ that places unnecessary constraints on us by imposing fake belief systems, or simply giving us a set of psychological auto-pilots that guide our thinking in a particular way. Well regulated organisations can cause such constraints disproportionately by inadvertently stifling human creative thinking.
The linear systems that may be absolutely necessary for good business operations can easily have the effect of creating linear thinking in people, thereby preventing creative thought processes. The near disaster at Three Mile Island that gave rise to the feature film ‘The China Syndrome’ provides a salutary lesson of what can happen when experts look at an issue. Following logical thinking and clear procedures they almost created a melt-down. It took a fresh perspective to ask a basic question that an O-level physics student would have asked that eventually averted disaster!
The danger for organisations is for them to become phlegmatic as they are gradually lulled into a false sense of security and hence the status quo is no longer questioned. It seems enough to merely keep improving one’s products rather than keeping one’s eyes, ears and mind open for new, radical and innovative ideas. And yet this is exactly what you should be doing – and at the same time, this is one of the most challenging tasks facing every industry.
Precious resources are squandered when companies, as if hypnotised, observe every step the competition takes and then slavishly copies them a short time later, thereby overlooking the fact that their rivals are themselves often bogged down in the past. And it is clear where this leads: it results in almost identical (which means interchangeable) products and services at almost identical prices. But what happens when innovators break into such an environment with their fresh ideas? Just remember how the established television networks in the United States reacted to Ted Turner’s announcement of his new idea for a 24-hour news channel: CNN was ridiculed as the ‘Chicken Noodle Network’ and Ted Turner was seen as a crackpot and not as a serious innovator.
The coffee shop chain Starbucks is a world-wide success story. In the United States, Starbucks is so successful that it has more loyal customers than any other retailer in the country. On average, a Starbucks customer visits a Starbucks 18 times per month. But where was Nestlé, the producer of Nescafé, the world’s best-selling coffee, when Starbucks got going? Why didn’t Nescafé come up with a concept for a world-wide network of trendy coffee bars? It knows the coffee market better than anyone else, after all. What were the people at Nestlé thinking about while the Starbucks chain was being established? Presumably they were debating the colour of their packaging or the shape of the jars to be placed on the supermarket shelves, or wondering how they could finally outpace their competitors at Procter and Gamble.
The fact is that innovation is more than the people. It’s teams of people with a common cause and a common passion, and it’s a million tiny steps. Mistakes are part of the process. Finding out what doesn’t work is just as valuable as finding out what does. A large part of an innovative culture is a feeling that you can take risks, and that you are empowered to take risks.
Russell Lawson is Managing Director of The Ideas Distillery, which helps companies tap into new markets through innovation.