How to Promote, Activate and Implement Innovation
In a market where competition is increasing at an exponential rate, as is technology, companies are desperately seeking ways to systematize innovation in to their processes, while minimizing risks and maximizing the returns from their Research and Development departments, with the objective of assuring the success of their businesses in the future.
In 1930, Karl Jansky, a young engineer at Bell Labs, created a mobile antenna with the aim of studying atmospheric sounds. With time, he observed that he was receiving a constant noise from the Milky Way, and like that he started, without realizing it, the field of radio astronomy. With this in mind, a question we can ask ourselves is: have we made a discovery, invention o innovation? The differences are important.
A discovery is something that has already occurred before being discovered and when this occurs it is not necessarily a business opportunity. In and of itself, it is not an invention or innovation. It is only an observation with sound foundation.
Invention is another word often spoken about. An invention is sometimes supported by a discovery, although it is not necessarily so. Innovations do not have to necessarily be made from inventions. In general, an invention is a novel development, typically of an engineering nature and often based on a discovery.
Innovation, however, implies innovating on a product or service, creating it, generating business and a return. Discoveries and inventions are often made by individuals, but it is improbable that an innovation is not an effort of a multidisciplinary team.
Today, however, innovations – particularly disruptive ones – have less to do with discoveries or inventions, and more to do with the integration of distinct elements in platforms with an exceptional user experience. If in the past – and perhaps still in too many places – innovation has been centered in the product (i.e. technology, price, etc.), but it’s becoming more relevant to think of it in terms of service, ecosystems and business models.
The Myth of the Idea
The reality is that ideas have little value in the sense that it is easy to generate many and it is normal that various people are thinking or working, without knowing it, on the same idea. The truly difficult part is the execution: developing it and finding a sustainable business and growth model.
It is also important to remember that the quality of ideas is more relevant than the quantity. Xerox PARC or Bell Labs, responsible since the turn of the century for a good deal of technologies and visions that shape the world in which we live today, shared a lax and simple approach to innovation. They had a staff of the best researchers, and gave them the space, time and means to think, explore and prototype freely.
While it is true that we still carry forth their values in some ways, it is also true that both perished without having capitalized on their full potential, for several reasons frequently alien to the very nature of organizations.
To the contrary, today, it is more popular to have an approach that primes quantity above quality, lowering the maximum threshold to access an extremely Darwinistic environment. It is therefore an approach that places less emphasis on creativity and ideas based on profound knowledge, rigorous methodologies and measurements to evaluate success.Although it does not make sense to draw a divisive line here, we can refer to Apple and Google as examples of companies inclined to follow the first innovation model, and Airbnb and Uber the latter, all having achieved large degrees of success.
When it is time to promote an innovation, it is fundamental to understand the type that you want to promote, in terms of “ingredients” (business model, product, service, ecosystem, etc.), as well as scope or risk: incremental or disruptive. Whichever the case, any kind of exercise used to promote innovation should start with a cultural change related to the attitude of employees, as well as the organization.
At the individual level, it is necessary to start to train the mental muscle that allows observation of the world with wonder and empathy, and at the same time be open to experiment proactively. From the cultural point of view of the organization, we must begin with tolerance towards failure, rewarding not only good results but also learning for improvement, and controlling short-termism. The cases in which great innovations have been made by employees in secret, against the recommendation or even the threats of their companies, such as the Xerox laser copier, are not unheard of.
With clearly defined guidelines, innovation objectives and defined success criteria, it is not only necessary to establish the means to carry out the process, but also communicate it to and actively involve employees.
It is essential to establish spaces, physical and temporary, for research and reflection that allow challenges to be worked on and leveraged to gain deep insights. No less important is to facilitate, in these spaces, multidisciplinary exchanges, structured or not. Beyond research and reflection, there must also be space and time to test and prototype, and to view it as an investment in learning, avoiding the temptation to evaluate it against short-term, particularly economic, objectives. It is easy to get carried away by the headlines of successes from one day to the next, but normally behind all of them there are many years of work, iteration and pivoting. Both individuals and teams must also be clear about the objectives, how they will be evaluated and what will happen to them whether they succeed or fail. What will be the incentives and penalties? Do they know where to start? What internal resources do they have? Will external collaborators be needed?
Finally, it is important to work on resilience in the face of adversity, not only to have patience at a corporate level, but also in regards to the attitude of each individual.
It is necessary to look outside the corporate frontiers because often the germs of disruptive innovations appear in the most unsuspected places or with lesser means. It is essential to establish external links with other companies, groups, institutions, customers and the general public.
In large corporations there is a tendency to invest heavily in specific instances in which the innovation space is considered strategic. However, more resources, economic or otherwise, often do not correspond to better results. On the contrary, a mantra must constantly ask what is the least expensive way to learn, validating or denying hypotheses. Fortunately, it has never been more accessible to have access to available information, be it first or second hand, or talent that complements the innovative impulse.