Author: Clem Hathaway
Innovation: (noun) a new idea, device, or method; the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices or methods. Source: Merriam Webster Dictionary
Is this what innovation means to you?
The word “innovation” itself descends from the Latin words in and novare, meaning ‘to make new.’ As a term, it’s probably an overused buzzword, too often deployed as a marketing catch-phrase, its meaning has become obscured and diluted.
Let’s be clear, you don’t necessarily need to make something new to be innovative. For me, innovation can be repurposing an older tool for a new purpose. It’s what caused companies to build the first car, then make it safe, then make it electric. It’s the successful exploitation of ideas and it’s what underpins our national wealth and quality of life.
What’s the secret to being an innovative company?
There’s no secret to this. To be an innovative company, you have to ask for innovation. You assemble a group of talented people who are eager to do new things and put them in an environment where innovation is expected. It’s that simple - and that hard.
Innovation is as much about sales or service or information systems as it is about products and engineering. Most companies spend a lot more time selling their product or service than they do on R&D, so creativity from sales is just as important as creativity from the labs. There’s no one in any organization who can’t be clever and imaginative about doing their job more effectively. A good organization should expect innovation from its receptionists to its research scientists.
It’s probably helpful to classify the three phases of innovation:
Phase 1: After a new product reaches the market, typically a number of related designs are introduced where key features and performance are improved. Often a dominant design emerges.
Phase 2: Subsequently manufacturers try to improve the manufacturing process to reduce the cost. The innovation reaches a wider market.
Phase 3: A new technology comes along and challenges the original and the process begins again. Some simple examples would include:
- fountain pen > ballpoint > gel pen
- sailing ship > steamship > motor-driven ship
Organizations should be asking themselves: Where does our innovation come from? Where does it come from in our sector? Are there emerging technologies that could affect our organization? When was the last time we achieved a major innovation in product, service, process or business model? If staff have to think hard to answer these questions, then your organization may be more vulnerable than you think.
The growth-oriented organization of the 21st century knows that innovation, radical or incremental, is essential to survive the increasingly competitive business landscape and has to become a way of life for everyone in the organization. According to a recent Deloitte survey, innovation is considered to be one of the top three ‘purposes’ of business and just as important as profit. The report also reveals that 66% of Millennials say innovation is a key ingredient in making an organization an employer of choice and 60% believe they work for an innovative business.
Who should be responsible for innovation inside an organization?
That’s an important question and many organizations struggle with this. There are two quick answers.
First, there should be someone in charge of leading innovation and growth efforts within the organization. For many, this is the CEO’s responsibility. However, there’ss a new trend to appoint a specific person as Chief Innovation Officer (CIO). The CIO’s job is to drive organic growth strategies and establish systems and processes to make innovation scalable, sustainable and repeatable across the enterprise.
The second is that everybody is responsible for innovation, from the CEO to the receptionist. In this context we can look at three types of innovation - product or service innovation, process innovation and business model innovation.
Product innovation is about creating something new for customers to help them complete a job they want done. This type of innovation is not only for R&D personnel, but also for staff in sales, marketing and other areas. In brief, everybody in the organization has opportunities to think about creating new value for customers.
Is there a formal process that Omani companies could tap into the knowledge of their workforce?
There are several ways of tapping into the knowledge of your workforce. One approach is to solicit new ideas from employees. For example, Toyota does this extremely well. If you look at the number of ideas their employees submit to solve known problems, and the percentage of those ideas that are implemented to create new value, Toyota surpasses most other companies on this front. And it’s important to point out that this didn’t not happen overnight, the system has been built over the past 30 plus years.
The simple approach of collecting ideas from employees is powerful, yet many organizations fail to bring these ideas to life as they’re never taken seriously beyond the suggestion box. If an employee submits an idea and realizes that nobody cares about it, then next time she won’t offer any.
Aren’t businesses frightened of getting it wrong so don’t innovate?
Sir Richard Branson makes an interesting point about fear of failure. According to him innovation is all about getting things done and learning from the result whether it succeeds or fails. This way you try again or use your acquired knowledge in some other way. The way forward may not necessarily be straight but you will move forward and potentially gain competitive advantage.
From an historical perspective, it is said that Thomas Edison made over 2,000 attempts at creating the first light bulb. His view of this was that he found 2,000 ways not to make a light bulb. Imagine that there was no patent and a competitor had no knowledge of what Edison had done. Even if Edison was on attempt 1,999 he was still 1,999 steps ahead of his competitor, none of which he would have made without failing.
As Sir Richard says: “If you can identify and learn from your mistakes, you have a much greater chance of bouncing back from them - and succeeding the next time.”
Does innovation take time?
Innovation isn’t an easy process. For instance, the TV, computer and mobile phone were all originally predicted to fail and took several years to come to market and have mass appeal.
What slows innovation?
The most important internal factors that slow innovation are:
- The lack of supportive strategy
- Stagnating organizational culture
- Rigid structures and the existence of previous failures
To be successful, we need to bring together good ideas from not only government and business but also from the public, taking advantage of the capabilities of ordinary people to help with these three stagnating issues. I would also suggest that the existence of committed key individuals within senior management is the most important internal factor supporting innovation. We need to encourage Innovation Champions perhaps have one in every department? In fact, the company that builds a culture of innovation is on the path to growth. The company that fails to innovate is on the road to obsolescence.
Recommended Innovation Reading
- The Accidental Creative, Todd Henry. A quick and entertaining read on how to generate brilliant ideas at a moment's notice.
- Collective Genius, Linda Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove and Kent Lineback. A manual on creative collaborations by an outstanding collaboration of world-class scholars and creative thinkers.
- Creativity, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. One of the first and still one of the best, science-based books on the creative process.
- Originals, Adam Grant. Once you have your idea, how do you champion it to a world that demands conformity? Grant addresses the question head on.
- A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink. Pink makes a compelling argument that creativity is the only thing that can't be outsourced and offers a guide to nurturing your own home-grown creative thinking.
- Zig Zag, Keith Sawyer. Sawyer is one of the world's foremost creativity researchers, but this isn't a book of research. Instead, it's a practical map of the creative process that anyone can follow.
 Deloitte, Millennial Innovation Survey. Available at: http://bit.ly/2EXLnYj