One of the most frequently asked questions I get is, “How can we unleash innovation all across our company?” Through the course of working with dozens of different organizations and teams, I’ve noticed four common traps that get in the way of building a culture of constant innovation.
- Swinging for fences. In sports we worship the game-clinching grand slam home run, the three-point field goal at the buzzer, the blinding slapshot in overtime, the “Hail Mary” pass, and the hole-in-one. Likewise in business, we worship the killer app: it’s impressive, it’s newsworthy, and it puts us ahead of the competition for a time.
But moments like these are rare. There are no baseball teams with a roster solely made up of home run hitters, and the most accomplished home run hitters generally have a low batting average and a high strikeout rate. In business that translates to huge risk and is usually accompanied by high cost.
Therefore, it might just make more sense to have the whole team focus on making it to first base every time at bat.
Getting too clever. This is the “bells and whistles” trap which can easily get out of control in an effort to outdo competitors. It carries with it the danger of complexity and customer alienation. How smart is your phone, really? Great pictures, music, video, but wouldn’t you love to be able to make a call without the call ever dropping?
Mention “innovation” and people immediately think technology. The pace of technological progress sweeps us off our feet, and we get all caught up in the gizmo while losing sight of the why behind the what. The simple truth is that business innovation is about value, not gadgetry. People don’t want products and services, they want an elegant solution to their problem. Put another way, they don’t want a fancy shovel. They want a hole in the ground.
- Excluding the everyman. A lot has been written about how innovation should go beyond incremental improvement, and how it entails seeking and taking big risks. How it’s all about big ideas and radical departures from convention. How it means completely scrapping the old system, and how you need deep pockets just to play the game.
Those biases are limiting at best, and only serve to inadvertently exclude the everyman from innovating. If you want company-wide innovation, you need to define innovation in a way that includes everyone, irrespective of function or role. The best definition of innovation is from JetBlue founder David Neeleman:
“Innovation is trying to figure out a way to do something better than it’s ever been done before.”
This simple definition wrestles to the ground a complex concept and makes it accessible to everyone at every level.
- Incentivizing creativity. Combined research from the Employee Involvement Association and Japan Human Relations Association reveals that the average number of ideas submitted per employee annually is 100 times greater in Japanese companies than in U.S. companies. Why is this?
For one thing, Americans reward the wrong thing in the wrong way. The average reward in Japanese companies is 100 times less than the average U.S. reward of nearly $500. But we have it backwards because we reward only accepted ideas. This has killed the creative drive of corporate America.
Kaizen, the Japanese word for continuous improvement, is all about idea submission, not acceptance. Kaizen fosters a strong ethos of lab-like curiosity in companies like Toyota, and it’s a proven, grassroots way to harvest human creativity. For example, Toyota implements on average one million ideas a year—that’s about three thousand ideas a day. Each one is an experiment in trying to figure out a way to do something better than it’s ever been done before.
Companies that have mastered company-wide innovation generally have embedded a discipline around making a number of small bets across a broad and deep portfolio of ideas, rather than one big bet-the-farm gamble on a would-be killer app. History has shown that constant business innovation isn’t as much about throwing the Hail Mary pass as it is about running a solid ground game.
Matthew E. May is Chief Strategist for MBox Design, 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.