People love the idea of ‘accidental innovation’. The term ‘accidental innovation’ is often used to describe the invention of things like penicillin, microwave ovens, Nutrasweet and vulcanized rubber. The stories behind these accidental innovations are intoxicating because they make it seem like innovation can come from anywhere – in an instant. But often people don’t tell the whole story behind these accidental innovations. As a result, people get the impression that innovation is easy, they confuse ideas with innovation, and as a result, a project-based approach to innovation is reinforced.
When it comes to innovation, good ideas are a dime a dozen. If you ask people for ideas or run a brainstorming session, you will get ideas, lots of ideas, but that doesn’t mean you’ll create any new innovation in your organization. Creating innovation is not about just getting a bunch of ideas, picking one, and then creating a project and throwing human and financial resources behind it. Sure it seems quick and easy, and maybe a fire drill approach to innovation might work once in a while (maybe when your growth crisis is particularly severe), but this approach is not sustainable.
Let’s look at the ‘accidental innovation' of vulcanized rubber starting with a quote from the history of Charles Goodyear from Goodyear’s website:
This discovery is often cited as one of history's most celebrated "accidents." Goodyear stoutly denied that. Like Newton's falling apple, he maintained, the hot stove incident held meaning only for the man "whose mind was prepared to draw an inference." That meant, he added simply, the one who had "applied himself most perseveringly to the subject."
People often trumpet the success of Goodyear’s accidental innovation and ignore the back-story. The complete Charles Goodyear story includes success, but also a great deal of failure. First, he failed to sell a new valve for rubber life preservers in 1834, and then failed for five years to discover a solution to the shortcomings of rubber that caused many companies to go bankrupt during the ‘rubber fever’ of the 1830’s. Ultimately, Charles Goodyear did succeed in finding the solution to rubber’s failure in temperature extremes, but he did a poor job of commercializing the invention and died $200,000 in debt. Along the way, Charles Goodyear also had to bury six of his twelve children and was thrown into debtors prison in two countries. And amazingly, the Goodyear corporation we all know today actually has nothing to do with Charles Goodyear. Still think that a project-based innovation approach is the way to go?
Instead of serving as a triumph of accidental innovation, the Charles Goodyear story should serve as a cautionary tale for those considering the project-based pursuit of innovation. Now be honest, how many of you work for companies that would be willing to bet everything on a single disruptive innovation project and support it through five years of disappointing results?
We love to think of innovators as instantaneous heroes who create their innovations in a flash of brilliance, but the reality is that inventing is hard work, and commercializing those inventions into widely-adopted innovations is even harder. Creating successful innovations requires three things:
- Excellence in Multi-disciplinary Collaboration and Execution
Fall short in any one of these three areas and you’ll end up like Charles Goodyear, frustrated and penniless. The first two are self-explanatory, so let’s focus briefly on the third. To be sure, excellence in multi-disciplinary collaboration and execution requires that you put some structure and process in place.
Innovation, contrary to popular belief, actually thrives within an environment with some structure and constraints. At the same time, innovation is not a solo activity and requires that collaboration be fostered. We hold up Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell as lone geniuses, but the truth is that both brought together groups of smart scientists and other professionals and put some structure around them to enable them to dream and to learn from their failures along the way. For your organization to achieve sustained innovation success, you should begin your formalized approach to innovation with these ten foundational activities:
- Defining what innovation means for your organization
- Creating a common innovation language for the organization
- Crafting an innovation vision
- Shaping an innovation strategy
- Deciding on innovation goals
- Building an innovation process
- Allocating money to finance a portfolio of innovation projects
- Diversifying your innovation portfolio by investing in projects with different risk profiles, time horizons, key resources, etc.
- Planning how innovation projects will be staffed and funded over each project’s lifecycle
- Instrumenting your projects so that you can learn fast and make accurate decisions
These 10 activities will help get you on your way to creating a sustainable approach to innovation. They will create an organization capable of identifying and ending zombie projects (projects that should be killed but often aren’t), and increase your chances of having an innovation portfolio that pays off by sustaining the growth of your organization.
We can’t cover everything that taking a professional approach to innovation might require in a single article, but doing these 10 foundational activities will help get you off to a successful start. And success after all, is no accident.
P.S. – Innovation requires a great deal of courage. If your organization has a fear of risk or failure embedded in it, you must change that first or set up your innovation efforts outside the normal chain of command so that the risk and the possibility of failure can be managed and balanced intelligently against the rest of the portfolio.
Braden Kelley is the author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire from John Wiley & Sons. Braden is also the editor of Blogging Innovation and founder of Business Strategy Innovation, a consultancy focusing on innovation and marketing strategy.