Sunday, September 22, 2013

How to be a successful innovator within a company

We wrote 8 Steps toInnovation to help organizations build a capability for systematic innovation. But, how do our insights from the 8 Steps framework translate into action points for the individual who has the desire to be an innovator? [Here, my focus is on the innovator who is working in a company or other organization.]

Be curious

All of us are creative. But it’s not creativity but curiosity that is the trigger for innovation. A few days ago, some students from NIT Surathkal came to meet me. They are keen to get involved in innovation and entrepreneurship, but they don’t know where to start. I suggested that they look around for problems to solve. India has no shortage of problems that could provide the starting point for creative problem solving.

How do you find these problems? Whether you are working in an organization, or are a student, immerse yourself in the life of people, that’s the best way to find these problems. Pain, wave (current trends), and waste (wherever resources are not being put to good use) are good sources of problems that you can include in your challenge book.

A strong desire to do things “better” – faster, at a lower cost or with better features or performance - helps drive the curiosity for innovation.
One successful innovator whose co-creation we use every day is Art Fry (picture below). He is well known for the Post-it note – see how his curiosity led him to a very successful innovation.

Learn and practice techniques to “release” your creativity

While all of us have some innate creativity, we may express it in different ways – some of us in the kitchen, some of us through music, others on the sports field. How do we direct our creativity to problem solving in the business context?

Fortunately for us, there are a number of methods and techniques that can help us release our creativity. These include TRIZ, design thinking, Six Thinking Hats, and brainstorming. The internet has plenty of resources covering these techniques, and there are many organizations offering courses as well. But, remember that all these are aids to innovation, and need to be applied and practiced in the context of the problem you have chosen.

Focus your creativity on “relevant” problems

For innovators within organizations, I hope you don’t mind a piece of advice: it’s usually much more helpful (and less stressful!) to focus your problem solving skills on problems that are relevant to your organization.

During my visits to companies, I often hear complaints from employees such as: “I came up with an app to help farmers get market prices easily on their mobile phone, but no one is interested in what I have created.” But is this a surprise if the person complaining works for a company in the automotive industry?

All companies work within some scope of business that they have chosen. They target their (limited) resources to succeed within this domain. They are unlikely to support ideas that fall far outside this scope. The best way to avoid frustration is to work on ideas within the scope of the company or in nearby adjacencies. Otherwise, you will have a really tough (if not impossible) time convincing someone within the company to support your ideas. As you might have read, even companies like Google (which was famous for allowing employees to work on projects of their own choice for 20% of their time) have in recent months narrowed the scope of their attention to some well-defined domains and projects.

Participation in organizational innovation initiatives/contests can be a good way of ensuring that you are working on problems that are relevant to the company (provided, of course, that your company has given some careful though to the themes of the contest!).

Continuously experiment, try to validate your ideas at low cost

While most of us love brainstorming and coming up with new ideas, ideation is only one part of the innovation process. Ideas gain value when they can be demonstrated to work. Many ideas may in fact fail, and may need to be refined and improved upon before they solve a particular problem. So, a critical skill for innovators is the ability to design simple experiments that can help them see whether their ideas work. The ability to persevere with an idea is the hallmark of a successful innovator. Remember Edison’s comment about innovation being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration!

Be open to ideas from others, build on your own

It is rare that a single idea solves a complex problem. Ideas become stronger when they are mixed, matched and refined by other ideas. Being open to other people’s ideas helps your own become stronger and better. Of course, while doing this, it’s only fair to acknowledge the contributions of others.

Very few ideas are fundamentally new. Often borrowing ideas from other fields and adapting them is a powerful way of solving problems. Remember that the design of complex financial products became much easier because people from Physics and Maths brought their skills and ideas to the financial services industry.

Make your idea sticky

I often find innovators in organizations frustrated by what they see as a lack of interest in their ideas. While one way to overcome this challenge is to work on organizationally-relevant problems, that’s usually not enough.

Many successful organizational innovators get traction because they manage to find a champion, a senior organizational member who acts as their ambassador and promotes their idea. To get such support, it’s essential to make your ideas sticky – you need to build a good story around your idea and find ways to creatively communicate it to others. The slide below gives some of the ways in which you can make your idea sticky.

Communicating your ideas well benefits from practice. So, as in the case of enhancing your creativity, work on this skill.

Contemporary management emphasizes the importance of networking. Try to build a strong network with others in the organization. Once you have built credibility and trust with influential members of the organization, it will be easier for you to get acceptance of your ideas.

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