If you look at innovation as producing one big idea, then you’re looking at it all wrong.
Innovation instigator Stephen Shapiro says the purpose of innovation is agility, not one-time change. For a business to be successful, ongoing change is necessary.
“When the pace of change outside of your organization is faster than the pace of change within, you’ll be out of business,” he says. “The pace of change is, of course, explosive right now.”
Stephen has made it his business to help companies improve their innovation practices by serving as a consultant, advisor, speaker and trainer.
Here, he checks in to share his insight on what organisations and entrepreneurs can do, to foster innovation within their organizations. Here’s what he had to say:
What’s your professional background and area of expertise?
I started my professional career with Accenture, the large management-consulting firm, back in 1986 (then they were Arthur Andersen’s consulting business).
From 1995 through 2001, I focused on helping companies grow through innovation. Then in 2001, my first book, 24/7 Innovation, was published. I used that as an opportunity to leave Accenture and start my own innovation business.
Today, I help companies grow through speeches, books and advisory services on innovation.
How did you become so passionate about innovation?
From 1993 through 1995, I was a co-lead of Accenture’s “Business Process Re-engineering” practice. Our role was to help companies become more efficient.
Sadly, this often resulted in massive downsizing and job loss.
After realizing I didn’t want to be responsible for people losing their jobs, I worked with others to create a 20,000-person practice focused on growth through innovation.
I’m proud to say that in the past 20 years, I have not been responsible for one lost job.
What can business owners and entrepreneurs do to spur innovation?
First, recognize that innovation and creativity are not the same thing.
Creativity is about ideas. Innovation is an end-to-end process that starts with an issue, problem, challenge, or opportunity; and ends with the creation of value.
Given this definition of innovation, the key thing business owners can do to help spur innovation is to provide clarity around how innovation is specifically defined for your organization.
I like to say, “Innovate Where You Differentiate.” You can’t innovate everywhere. So determine what sets you apart from everyone else and focus your energies there.
In your observations, what are killers of innovation?
There are some obvious (and well-worn) killers of innovation (e.g., “yeah, but”).
I alluded to one in the previous question: trying to innovate everywhere. It is just not possible if you want to get a high return on your innovation efforts. Not every idea is a good idea. And not every area of your business has to be innovated.
Confirmation bias is one of the biggest killers of innovation, because it makes organizations continue to invest in ideas that should have been killed off – robbing other, better ideas of the time, money and resources they need. When you think, “wow, this is a great idea,” your brain only looks for evidence to support your belief.
The reason why 70 percent of innovations fail is because we get too attached to our ideas. Knowing what ideas to “kill” is the best way to stop killing innovation.
What do you think are some outdated ideas about how to get employees and teams to think creatively?
Think outside the box.
This expression is used to indicate that people need to think creatively. But this is terrible advice. I suggest that people “find a better box.” Or, as Einstein reputedly said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions.”
From my experience, most companies are spending 60 minutes solving problems that don’t matter.
Asking for ideas is a bad idea because it creates a lot of noise. Instead, ask people (employees, customers, vendors, partners) for solutions to well-framed challenges. This reduces noise and increases innovation ROI massively.
How should businesses that want to be innovation leaders approach hiring?
It is important to recognize that “expertise is the enemy of innovation.”
When you only hire experts, you only get incremental improvements over past solutions.
Breakthroughs require people from multiple disciplines. However, this does not mean you need to formally hire these people into your organization.
Open innovation, crowdsourcing and strategic partnerships can be great ways of bringing in external thinking. There is so much more that can be said on this topic, but there is not enough space to address it fully.
What businesses or industries do you think have mastered innovative thinking? What can we learn from them?
There are a few companies I think understand innovation. And no, I am not referring to Apple or Google. They are great, but they are overused examples. Here are three I like:
- USAA is a financial services organization that only serves people from the military. They are very clear on what innovation means: making the lives of their members (customers) better. They have the highest customer service rankings and unbelievable retention figures.
- 3M’s product development is unlike any other in the world. They do an amazing job of cross-pollinating solutions from one area to another. They will take a solution from adhesives and find ways of applying it to, for example, reflectives or abrasives. This has had a massive impact on their profitability.
- When you think of innovation, we tend to think of sexy and high-tech. But one of the most innovative companies produces Lycra, Stainmaster Carpets, Brawny Paper Towels and Dixie Cups. What makes them special is their approach to experimentation. Decision-making is pushed to the lowest level of the organization, where funding is given to conduct small scalable experiments. This reduces risk and ensures products are ready for the marketing before the big investments are made.
What inspires you to think creatively?
My downtime is critical. I love to sit in hot tubs or on beaches.
This calms my mind and quiets the judgmental parts of my brain. I use this time to reflect and develop some of my best solutions.
And the last word – solutions – is critical. Ideas are great. But I prefer to find solutions to real problems that people/companies have; solutions that uniquely address their needs in a creative way.
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