Becoming Real Innovators

Companies today are eagerly seeking the answer to one essential question. How do we innovate?

Today, 75% of companies say they’re committed to innovation as one of their top priorities.1 But most struggle to innovate. For many corporations, it’s like grabbing the wind in their hands. There must be a trick to it! Perhaps they just have to hire people who are born that way. Perhaps they have to commit a larger budget to the effort. So they keep trying. Some are successful. But mostly, they’re not. Why is this true? Is innovation truly that difficult? Is there a secret science that’s elusive and only accessible by a few individuals, that some companies are fortunate to have? What’s the secret?

What’s the difference between Apple, which goes from being a computer company to a company that’s in the music business, the phone business, the watch business, the TV business, and the car business, and Kodak, a company that once dominated its category and is now bankrupt? Why is it that companies know they should innovate, that they’re committed to innovation, that they can see many examples of companies that successfully innovate – yet they fail miserably at the task? This begs the question: what’s the difference between “knowing that” and “knowing how?” What’s the difference between knowledge and skill? How do we differentiate between knowing the skills that are required and actually being successful at innovation?

Take the example of riding a bike. As a father, I can tell my daughter many facts about riding a bike: put your foot on the forward pedal to start, look straight ahead, lean into the turn, steer to keep your balance. But just knowing these facts does not a bike rider make! In fact, if she pays too much attention to each of these skills, leaning “just the right amount”, or finding the “perfect” way to push the pedals, she will actually lose her balance. Instead, those facts, that knowledge, must be integrated into the skill. They need to become second nature. Only then will she become a bike rider.

Ahh, but once she gets it about riding a bike, two incredible things happen. First, amazingly, she can’t unlearn this skill. She absolutely can’t forget how to do this. Once a bike rider, never a non-bike rider! Second, and this is very transformative, once she’s a bike rider, the whole world opens up to her in “bikish” ways that she never ever conceived of before. To quote Dr. Seuss, “Oh the places you’ll go!”2 You recognize an entire universe of things that you never really understood before. You can show off (“Look Mom!”). You can explore your world. You can exercise. You can get to places of convenience. You can compete! So it is with innovation.

The Keys To Innovation

So what in effect then are some of the keys to innovation? What is the essence of innovation that leads companies to become perennial innovators that in fact can’t “not innovate?” Most companies have a well-rehearsed list of the attributes of successful innovation: brainstorm, think outside the box, fail fast, be agile, follow a lean startup approach, build a minimum viable product, ready fire aim, pivot, etc. What can get companies over the hump from knowing that they should innovate and from knowing the constituent skills that comprise innovation to being companies where innovation happens as a matter of course?

If you search Amazon Books for “innovation” you’ll find 60,000+ results. 3 Clearly, answering this question is an area of differing opinion and knowing “the answer” of course is a fool’s errand. That said, two principles stand out that can help companies go from “making innovation a priority” to actually innovating.

Principle #1: Demanding Certainty Kills Innovation

“If you want to have good ideas, you must have many ideas.” — Linus Pauling

Understand that certainty is the mortal enemy of innovation. In those 75% of companies that are committed to innovation, it’s all too common to hear about the launching of an innovation “initiative” with the accompanying hoopla and ceremony. Implied in this launching though is a demand for X results within a Y timeframe. Executives want to report measurable results with certainty; otherwise the entire effort is deemed a failure. Unfortunately, a demand of certainty in the innovation contract can be the kiss of death. Why is this? Because it conveniently opens the back door to irresponsibility. Starting an innovation “initiative” after all means executives can point to something tangible that demonstrates the company’s commitment to innovation. Now, they can sit back and let the “innovation team” manage the results.

Here’s the question however. If the firm is so committed to innovation, which they should be, then why is it an initiative at all? Why isn’t it deeply bred into the company’s culture where innovation would happen as a matter of course? Of course, you’ll need discipline and accountability. But companies that innovate, can’t “not innovate.” They don’t have “innovation initiatives.” They don’t demand certainty in “innovations”, either in number, or quality, or fit, or ROI. In fact, demanding certainty and imposing predetermined structure in innovation crowds out ideas and creativity. In innovative organizations, innovation is de rigueur because it’s deeply embedded in the culture and not doing so wouldn’t actually make any sense.

Principle #2: Innovation Is Discovery, Not Creation

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” — Michelangelo

Like balance in bike-riding, the key to innovation is discovery, the sense that you’re uncovering something, vs creation, the idea that you’re dreaming up something entirely new. The symbol so often used for innovation is a light bulb. The picture is that, for a long period of time, there’s darkness. Then suddenly, as if a light bulb turns on, there’s an idea that just pops into your head, and all goes from darkness to light. It’s as if you were blind, searching around, stumbling perhaps, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, a light bulb appears, in fact illuminating something brand new that you had no concept of before. Of course, it almost never happens that way. As complexity scholar Brian Arthur notes, “Invention is not an event signaled by some striking breakthrough. It is process – usually a lengthy and untidy one – of linking a purpose with a principle (some generic use of an effect) that will satisfy it.”4

As an innovator, you see much uncertainty, surrounded by waves of possibility , possibilities that you can’t really articulate, but you sense them. You know that you’re headed towards a destination. You see that you’re actually getting to know that possibility. You get confirmation that you’re actually on to something. And then that possibility becomes clearer and clearer as you get closer and closer. It, in fact, becomes so obvious you wonder how you didn’t know it all the time. Like riding a bike, you wonder, “what was so hard about that?” And the process actually doesn’t seem like magic. It doesn’t seem like grabbing the wind. It is, in fact, a process, that when mastered, becomes part and parcel of how you do business, of how your company functions.

Innovation Is Counter Intuitive

Of course, companies want to innovate. They recognize without a doubt the importance, in fact, the absolute urgency of the need to innovate for their very survival. But knowing and doing are two different things. Innovation is especially challenging in the chasm between knowing and doing. It is, in fact, counter-intuitive, like riding a bike.

“Lean into the turn? I’ll certainly crash!” No, you’ll find a whole new world opens up for you!

“Allow freedom and uncertainty in my organization so that ideas flow and innovators can travel the path to the discovery of new and compelling products and services?” Yes! You’ll find that your company will shift dramatically into one that can’t ‘not innovate.’ That in fact, your people will be inspired, and that ideas will flow freely, and people will recognize new discoveries on the horizon. That they’ll know there’s freedom, responsibility even, to uncover those ideas, to develop them, to deliver them. You will, almost without knowing it, have joined the ranks of the real innovators!

[1] “Innovation in 2014.” BCG Perspectives, 28 Oct. 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2015
[2] Seuss. Oh, the Places You’ll Go! New York: Random House, 1990. Print.
[4] Arthur, W. Brian. “The Structure of Invention.” Research Policy 36 (2007) 274–287 The Structure of Invention (n.d.): n. pag. 19 Dec. 2005. Web.