If you search Amazon for “Innovation,” you’ll get over 39,000 book titles. I’ve read a tiny fraction of the total, but a much larger fraction of the true standouts. And I’ve written a couple books myself. Innovation is a huge topic, and you can slice and dice it in, well, tens of thousands of ways. Can such a large topic be boiled down to a few enduring principles and ten strategies in an 800-word column? Let’s try.
The challenge begins with the definition of innovation. Most of the definitions I’ve seen are overly complicated, scholarly descriptions full of qualifications, and generally serve to exclude the everyman from innovating. IMHO, the best definition of innovation on the planet is the one given by David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue: “Innovation is trying to figure out a way to do something better than it’s ever been done before.” That echoes Thomas Edison’s mantra of “There’s a way to do it better—find it.”
So far, so good. That definition opens up innovation, and makes it accessible, regardless of your sphere of activity or function. Moving on, then, to the meta principles, and invoking the “Rule of Three” (we can remember three!) I come up with these:
Ingenuity. Ingenuity is human creativity plus application, idea plus execution.
Perfection. Imperfection is what drives innovation, because nothing’s perfect. Perfection is a pursuit, a journey, not a destination. The destination is a placed called “Better.”
Fit. Any innovation has to fit. In other words, if you have a better mousetrap, there better be a serious rodent infestation.
I can’t think of a successful innovation without some element of each in it. The challenge is, of course, wrestling those principles to the ground, making them useful, putting them into practice, every day, by everyone. Here’s my list of top ten key practices that help do that. I’ve included a couple of questions for each to prompt your thinking. Each of these relates to one or more of the three principles above.
Let Learning Lead. Learning and innovation go hand in hand, but learning comes first. Learning is defined as the creation of new knowledge through experimentation. Harvard’s David Garvin, an expert on company learning, maintains that “learning will always remain something of an art, but even the best artists can improve their technique.”
To what degree is experimentation built into your core work processes?
What routines are in place to quickly pilot new ideas?
Learn to See. The most successful innovations often come from customers—get out more and live in their world. Observe them, infiltrate and become them, and involve them in the design. Wear three hats: detective, FBI profiler, and problem-solver.
How well do you understand the problem your customers face?
What part do customers play in solution design?
Design for Today. Focus on present needs, or your great ideas remain just ideas. Peter Drucker once wrote “Don’t try to innovate for the future. It’s not enough to be able to say ‘In 25 years there will be so many very old people that they will need this.’”
What is the great and pressing need your offering meets?
What market, societal or demographic shifts can be exploited?
Think in Pictures. Aristotle said it best: “The soul does not think without a picture.”So get visual with your idea: sketch it, storyboard it, diagram it, mindmap it, whiteboard it, butcher-paper the walls and go crazy. Paint a picture of the future, and show progress against your goals in a vivid, appealing, unboring way.
What opportunities exist to use images and visual references?
What does the idea solution actually look like?
Capture Intangible Value. The most compelling solutions are often perceptual and emotional. It’s the art of business. A Harley-Davidson exec once said “What we sell is fear: the ability for a 43-year old accountant to dress in all-black leather, ride through small towns, and have people be afraid of him.”
How do you connect emotionally with your customers?
What one word would customers use to describe your uniqueness?
Leverage the Limitations. Resource constraints can spur ingenuity more than a big budget. Things start in the garage for a reason: you have an idea you’re passionate about, it’ll change the world, and it’s the lack of space, manpower and money that drive your resourcefulness.
How do your goals stimulate new thinking?
Are resource constraints blocking innovation, or enabling it?
Master Creative Tension. Don’t satisfice, don’t glom on to the obvious solution and then just sell the heck out it, or you’ll wake up an also-ran. Breakthrough thinking demands something to break through. Set goals high, and don’t back off, don’t compromise, don’t downgrade your thinking.
What tools do you use to frame problems and guide thinking?
What key mechanisms do you use to address complex challenges?
Run the Numbers. Think for yourself—temper instinct with insight, focus on facts, and do the math. Google was a math problem. So was Paypal. Nothing better than a little pattern science to fight conventional wisdom. Oakland A’s manager Billy Bean challenged convention by simply looking at statistics, and created a legacy of winning with the second smallest budget in baseball.
What patterns might be investigated to challenge convention?
What critical success factors in your market space are undervalued, and thus exploitable?
Make Kaizen Mandatory. Kaizen is the Japanese term for continuous improvement, taught to Japan by the U.S. Government following World War II. It’s the everyday practice of pursuing mastery and perfection. It has three steps: create a standard, follow it, and find a better way. Repeat again and again, because there is simply no limit on better.
How are new ideas encouraged in your company?
How do you sustain constant idea flow?
Keep it Lean. Complexity kills value—scale it back, make it simple, and let it flow. Take a page from Henry David Thoreau’s urge to “Simplify, simplify, simplify!” Combine it with the Michelangelo strategy: “I saw David through the stone, and I simply chipped away everything that was not David.” Target overload, inconsistency, and waste. Think: Google interface. In ’N Out Burger. Twitter.
How effortless is it for customers to pull value from you?
What would your customers love for you to eliminate, or stop doing?
Obviously, these are practical strategies, not nitty-gritty tactics. The questions should help prompt your own interpretation of the actual implementation of them.
Final thought: while innovation demands the pursuit of perfection, the best idea is often a brilliant imperfection. More on that to follow!
Matthew E. May is an innovation consultant and the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. He blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here.