I am sitting here facing a deadline to write this article on innovation… Isn’t it ironic yet obvious how innovation, stress and deadlines always seem to go hand-in-hand? Everyone needs and craves innovation, yet the more we chase it, the more elusive discovering the next “it” or “thing” seems to be.
Most of us have cut all the costs we can and are already working harder than ever. In this stagnant, doubtful economy, innovation seems be the best path to success. What breakthrough can we create to enhance our results and profits? But given the choice, innovation always seems to take a back seat to whatever is immediately needed or can be quickly done.
Given my procrastination in writing this article, I have to approach writing it spontaneously rather than by first reviewing the vast body of work on the topic of innovation. Simply stated, I see innovation as an individual’s or organization’s response to a condition, stimulus or demand that we face in the course of our work. The condition is uncontrollable and can be good, bad or boring. We can however choose innovation as a controllable reaction in the face of actions we cannot. So just are we seek to understand before we are understood, let me suggest we try to understand what kind of innovation we must respond with and then proceed to create it.
For me, innovation falls into three categories.
Premeditated: Opportunity-driven and optimistically embraced. A proactive innovation happens when an individual, group or company sees a way to create or add value that improves some aspect of their clients’ or their own condition. Apple’s IPhone and IPad are great examples. Teams were assembled to build Steven Jobs’ vision. Their goal is to improve the lifestyle of a mobile, social populace. Artificial deadlines and real milestones were set to assure ongoing progress and profitability. The results continue to enhance millions of customers’ lives and spur development teams to create more and more innovation.
Reactive: Crisis-driven and fearfully approached. A reactive or fear-driven innovation occurs when someone or some organization is confronted with a real or perceived threat to their well-being. BP’s Mexican Gulf oil fiasco demonstrates this. Society has put BP is on the defensive to take all steps possible to mitigate and repair the damage it has caused. Until but only until the economic, political and health threat to BP’s future is eliminated, we have the corporation’s full attention. Without public oversight and pressure, most would agree that BP’s efforts to solve the crisis might wane and would end as soon as they discovered the most expedient solution.
Spontaneous: Serendipitously discovered. An accidental connection is made despite someone's primary focus being elsewhere; perhaps as a result of being distracted or perhaps bored. Silly Bandz, the silicone rubber bands formed into animal shapes and worn as wristbands exemplify this third category. According to Wikipedia, “the idea was inspired by shaped silicone office products that were created with the hopes of being a green product. They did not work as companies did not want to spend much money on rubber bands. They were then made larger to fit as bracelets and rebranded as Silly Bandz.” Interest in such innovations is always limited to the consumers’ attention span and need to be immediately and constantly cost-justified accordingly.
So the next time you are asked to be innovative, try to understand what kind of innovation you are being asked to create. Your understanding of the demanding party’s reasons will help you determine what kind and how much innovation they will pay for, embrace and sustain. And keep asking for!
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Andy Birol also a noted small business coach, consultant and speaker who has been interviewed on CNN, Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Entrepreneur, and Fortune Small Business. You can follow him on twitter @AndyBirol.