This idea is not a new one. Theodore Levitt raised this issue in his legendary 1963 Harvard Business Review article entitled “Creativity is not enough.” He emphasized his title with the statement:
“The fact that you can put a dozen inexperienced people in a room and conduct a brainstorming session that produces exciting new ideas shows how little relative importance ideas themselves actually have.”
In another Harvard Business Review article written fully 40 years later entitled, “Innovating for Cash,” James P. Andres and Harold L. Sirkin made another important point:
“In fact, there’s an important difference between being innovative and being an innovative enterprise: The former generates lots of ideas; the latter generates lost of cash.”
Innovation is often considered only in the context of products or services, when in fact innovation can, and should be extended to all parts of a business -- processes, financing, relationship building and more. Of these, processes offer the greatest opportunity for innovation, since they touch all areas of a business.
Innovation is not limited to products or services
Processes have been and still are one of the most fertile fields for breakthrough innovations. Many of the unique new products being made today would not have been possible without the process innovations that made them both possible and economical. The most pervasive of these is the ubiquitous microprocessor semiconductor. These computer chips are everywhere and yet, less than a half century ago, there was no way to imagine how to make such tiny, complex devices in volume, reliably and economically.
Creativity would have said, “Use a computer” if such computers existed. But they were neither widespread nor widely used in process technology. Thus the question was “how to use a computer?” The innovation breakthrough that enabled much of this process innovation was the digital plotter, a sort of special purpose computer controlled machine, which transformed mathematical descriptions of locations into motion.
In the 1960’s circuit boards were created from masks made with foil tape, applied to transparent substrate, but working at a greatly magnified scale—since humans could not place strips of tape a few thousandths of an inch wide accurately enough.
One innovation led to many
Then, thanks to process technology innovation, digital plotters could create such patterns accurately, minutely, over and over, on masks that were used to photo-etch first the microcircuit boards, and later to “deposit” semiconductor materials that formed logic circuits. Innovation in products rapidly followed this breakthrough in process innovation that led to miniaturization beyond imagination at that time. Suddenly computer microprocessors were available to use in all sorts of processes. One breakthrough innovation led to many more innovation possibilities.
“What” is easy; “how” is harder
When Apple first created the iPhone, some of its features were astounding to the general public. Being able to make an image on the screen larger by simply putting two fingertips on the screen and spreading them apart seemed almost like magic. Tapping on the screen also made images larger or smaller. Creativity might have imagined the desirability of such capability. It was innovation in the “how to” area that made it possible.
Creativity leads to rampant ideation. Innovation leads to rampant commercialization and economic success. Creativity posits the question “What if we could?” Innovation takes it to the level of “How can we, and how fast, and at what cost?”
Drive out complexity and then ask the right questions
Too many times innovation is stifled by one of two culprits:
1) complexity born of uncontrolled proliferation (which consumes too many resources) or
2) asking the simplest of questions the wrong way.
Proliferation is not innovation, and it leads to complexity — a very wasteful result. Complexity can be measured and managed — and thus it can be controlled. Wasteful complexity uses valuable resources needed for innovation. Drive out unnecessary complexity and the entire organization will breathe a large collective deep breath. Get that done right away to make more resources (people, time, money) available for innovation.
Then it is important to ask the right questions, in the right ways — and then answer them. We humans tend to answer the questions we are asked. Instead of asking, “Why can’t we?” ask, “How can we, or how else might we?”
The difference in these two questions might seem small, but it is huge. Ask a question about why we can’t do something, and the answer is a litany of reason why we can’t do it. Simply turn the question around and ask, “how can we?” and the litany is a listing of what is, or might be possible.
Innovation success relies on execution
Thus creativity is transformed into the beginning of innovation. The remainder of innovation is that most challenging of all disciplines — execution. Execution is the act of ordering what must be done, and then identifying the critical next questions to ask: Who, will do what, by when, how, how much, and who is willing to be accountable. Ask these simple questions the right way, and you are on the threshold of success.
Creativity is the raw material; the right steps lead to innovation
While creativity and innovation are far from the same, the ideas spawned by creativity are the raw material from which innovation can grow. Products are the obvious first choice for innovation, but processes are equally important. The first few steps on the right path are critical. Asking and answer the right questions in the right way and you can open the door that leads to innovation and that leads to success, in good times and bad ones. Start now.
* * * * *
About the Author: John L. Mariotti is President and CEO of The Enterprise Group. He was President of Huffy Bicycles, Group President of Rubbermaid Office Products Group, and now serves as a Director on several corporate boards. He has written eight business books. His electronic newsletter THE ENTERPRISE is published weekly. His Web site is Mariotti.net.