Innovation – A Secret Sauce

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May 21, 2014

Many of our clients use the word innovation when talking about their goals and strategies.  Innovation themes for strategies never get old and yet achieving recognized innovation eludes many. Is there a secret sauce? We think not. Innovation is hard work, requiring a deep understanding of a problem area and a creative and well-informed process for identifying solutions.

A question I, and most managers responsible for innovation in established organizations, have faced goes something like this. Why do we frequently see innovation in new startup organizations and not as much in older, larger organizations?  Many entrepreneurs start with a deep understanding of a problem that sparked an idea, often a problem they had themselves. They are unencumbered by existing business processes, products, and customers. They lack the biases we develop over time as our history of success builds confidence that we know what the market needs.

Does this doom those of us in established organizations? Of course not, but it does mean we need to think differently about how we approach innovation and recognize that there are no shortcuts. While there is no “secret sauce,” there is no recipe either. Instead, there are necessary ingredients that, when combined, dramatically increase the likelihood of successful innovation.

At Strategy Arts, we use a simple definition for innovation, creating a compelling new way to do:

– Something better
– Something for less cost
– Something that could not be done before

Most commonly, innovation is associated with products and services. The domain of innovation is broader; it encompasses the whole organization.  Innovation can apply to products and services, but also more widely to the customer value proposition, or to the business model itself. The focus of innovation efforts depends on the problem area considered.

As we have helped and watched our clients innovate we see six ingredients that are important to good innovation, each of these could be (and may be) its own blog topic so I will keep it short here.

1. A Deep Understanding of a Problem – Understand the problem and the drivers behind the problem, otherwise it is easy to develop a solution in search of a problem or, worse yet, solve the wrong problem.

2. An Innovation Framework – Define a framework for how the organization will think about problems and their solutions. Be sure everyone knows to define the problem before working on solutions.

3. A Decision Process – Develop a process that defines how the organization will develop, vet, and decide to progress or sideline innovative ideas.

4. A Team – Identify the individual perspectives that will best support the process and choose who should be involved. Often this can include customers and experts from completely different disciplines and departments. Keep teams together as innovative ideas emerge and evolve.

5. A Conducive, Creative Environment – Create a space that supports expansive thinking. Consider an inviting and comfortable area that is away from the normal work environment for brainstorming sessions.

6. A Facilitator or Coach – Find a trusted and experienced facilitator that does not own the problem or the solution. Their help in guiding the process and in helping teams stay on task frees the team to do the thing they are there to do.

Combining these six ingredients with a healthy portion of hard work can help organizations create their own recipe for the innovation sauce.