3 Ways to Approach to Innovation

You don't necessarily need deep pockets or creative genius to come with innovation–just the right frame of mind.
Strategic Facilitation & Ideation, MatthewEMay.com
June 01, 2012

What is innovation really about? Some believe it is distinct from creativity. Some believe it must go beyond small improvement. Many believe you need deep pockets, because innovation entails seeking and taking big risks with big ideas and radical departures from convention. Others believe it’s the bailiwick of right-brainers only, and "suits" need not apply.

Those biases are limiting at best, and only serve to exclude the everyman from innovating. One of the best and simplest definitions of innovation is the one rendered 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.”

Here are three stories of innovation that show how different styles of thinking can lead to successful breakthroughs.

The Scientific Approach

Cyclist Lance Armstrong discovered that he could climb a mountain better by standing and spinning lower gears at a much higher cadence than the widely accepted practice of driving big gears while seated. He took a scientific approach to a problem: What's the best way to climb a mountain on a bike, given my gifts? By accepting and respecting the limitation of the medium, he leveraged the constraints in his effort to drive new ideas and methods. His record may never be matched: seven consecutive Tour de France titles.

Slow and Steady Pursuit of Better

While a handful of game-changing innovations can be traced to a stroke of genius, the vast majority of effective innovations result from a rigorous search for the optimal solution. Unexpected thunderbolt breakthroughs have little place in the strategic scheme of things, because they’re very often one-offs or happy accidents, and not repeatable. You can’t build a business on serendipity; it's neither predictable nor reliable.

The constant pursuit of better is.

The Lexus brand is a case in point. Toyota worked tirelessly at continuous improvement for 45 years before launching the luxury line. It then took just two years to displace Mercedes-Benz and BMW, entrenched for generations, as the top-selling luxury import nameplate in America.

Adapt With the Current Reality

What distinguishes great innovation is its ability to serve the needs of society with a valuable, meaningful contribution. Simply put, a successful mousetrap needs a serious rodent infestation, and a delivery system that places the mousetrap in the hands of those who can make the most use and best sense of it in today’s terms.

A great innovation fits–fits the innovator, fits the times, and fits within a larger system. A great innovation shapes the attitudes and behaviors of people. A great innovation, big or small, changes how people think and work. A great innovation allows others to see in it their own opportunity for a new and better life. A great innovation, like great leadership, aims to create meaningful change.

It wasn't that long ago that the music world was fighting the trend to share and download single songs over the Internet–defending to death the old system under attack by music lovers. Then along comes Apple, with a nifty little MP3 player called the iPod. But not just another MP3 player. A whole new ecosystem, iTunes, to deliver songs the way people wanted them delivered, designed to allow the iPod and its users to fit seamlessly into the whole mechanism. Apple cut deals to make everyone gain. It adapted to the current reality, and both the course of the company as well as the shape of society, in way best described as rhythmic.

What guides the innovation efforts in your company?

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