One of the most popular innovation blogsites is Braden Kelley’s Blogging Innovation. Braden has a number of well-known contributors—including myself—which makes for varied and interesting reading. His company, Business Strategy Innovation, advises companies both big and small.
Kelley just published the book, Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire: A Roadmap to a Sustainable Culture of Ingenuity and Purpose. I liked the title and found the book to be practical and representative of my own experience in working with companies on innovation strategy and culture change, so I asked him a few questions.
Q: First of all, explain the title.
A: My focus is not on imagining some idealistic, utopian model for innovation, but instead on helping existing organizations (warts and all) identify and remove their unique barriers to innovation—thus making their capacity for innovation burn brighter. My thesis, my going-in proposition, if you will, is that every organization is capable of being innovative, but what happens is that as organizations grow, they unintentionally put obstacles to innovation in place. But the good news is that they can be removed fairly easily. There’s a straightforward, practical framework that allows a reboot.
Q: Let me back up for a second. I’m reading the book, and I’m thinking: “What I really need here is a simple, accessible, one-sentence definition of innovation.” Can you provide one?
A: Sure. To me, innovation is transforming useful ideas into solutions that are valued above every existing alternative.
Q: That works for me! Okay, what three practical things can an innovative small business do to keep the innovation fire going?
A: I would focus on three key things:
- Maintain that unwavering intensity on creating and increasing customer value that you no doubt started with, and focus on ways to constantly reduce customer burden and friction. Be relentless and ruthless about it. If an idea doesn’t add real value, scrap it. If an existing product, service or process injects fat or waste in the customer experience and somehow makes it worse, banish it or fix it or redesign it. If it’s not solving a real customer challenge, it’s not really innovation.
- Make it crystal-clear for employees, and anyone else you seek to partner with, what your innovation vision, strategy and goals are. Communicate these relentlessly and simply... focus the message on your users or customers to make it meaningful. Innovation isn’t innovation unless it’s useful for someone somewhere. As an abstract concept, it isn’t helpful in today’s harsh market. It’s not enough to post something on a wall somewhere. In fact, if you do, it’ll soon become meaningless wall art.
- Instill a culture of learning in your organization: learning from failure, learning to listen, learning from customers, and learning to collaborate with others to solve the most pressing customer challenges. And when I say learning, I don’t mean taking a class or reading a book. I mean creating new knowledge... finding problems and feeding opportunities. It’s a daily activity that needs to be built into the work, not kept separate from it.
Q: You note a lot of the companies typically cited when talking about innovation... do you have an example of a small business that exemplifies your thesis?
A: I’ll give you two. Innocent in the U.K., and 37signals here in the U.S. Neither stopped at a single product, and instead continue seeking to increase customer value or reduce customer friction—often having fun or doing things a little differently in the process. Newman’s Own is also a great small company innovation story... they’ve now given more than $300 million to charity. When you combine increased value and decreased friction with focus, passion and perseverance, you get a powerful innovation cocktail.
Q: Last question: What’s the one thing you want every reader to walk away with?
A: The one thing that I’d like everyone to walk away with is the idea that there’s a creative, innovative flame alive and burning in just about everyone, and you just have to keep stoking it! The best way to do that is to not let anything douse those flames as you become larger and more successful. But if you do—and let's face the fact that it happens, and happens easily—recognize what’s putting the fire out and remove it. I think by keeping the bonfire metaphor front and center, and not overthinking the whole thing, any organization can remain innovative.
Matthew E. May is the author of The Shibumi Strategy: A Powerful Way to Create Meaningful Change, forthcoming from Jossey-Bass. He blogs at MatthewEMay.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @matthewemay.