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Stop talking about innovation, get on with it - 6 stakes to ground innovation

Innovation. Surely one of the most used and abused words of our times. Whether it is government, business, not-for-profit, the milkman on my doorstep, they all talk about it. Someone starts painting the office walls bright orange and people excitedly shout: oh, how innovative! Someone suggests to invite external people to an idea generation session and you can hear the shout ‘oh how innovative’ again. Each time that happens I cringe. Everyone and everything have become innovative! Though when challenged to explain what innovation actually means and requires, things tend to get a little confused and confusing. To some people it is about inventions, to some people it is about creativity, to some it is about great ideas; it is for specialists, it is for those in white lab coats, it is for those with bow ties.

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Let me put the first couple of stakes into the ground: first, Innovation is for everyone – the degree of departure from the existing and how we express it are different – and that’s fine. Second stake: creativity and invention are but the point of departure for innovation. Only once you do something with that idea, the invention, and find someone who is willing to engage with, use, buy it, can you talk about innovation. How many brain storming and idea generation sessions take place in your organisation? And how much of the material disappears into draws, never to be heard of or seen again?

A third stake is innovation not only being about tangible products; if you seek to innovate you can do so with much greater impact if you go beyond ‘product’. How about selling farmers weed-free fields instead of selling them pesticides (this is what the American company Dow Chemicals did). What about creating an offering that gives people a device and allows them to legally download and store music, paying for it in ways not thought of before? Quite right, I am talking about the iPod. You already know it because it is obvious: by changing the business model and creating multifaceted, interdependent offerings you make it rather more difficult for competition to copy you than by just going one up on their existing product. Combining physical and non-physical innovation is the key to impact and transformational change.

And you ain’t going to see any impact or transformation unless the innovation is meaningful and relevant. With all the hype around innovation there is far too much change for the sake of it, too much innovation for the sake of being innovative. That’s not the point and is just not good enough; in fact, it is an irresponsible waste or your organisation’s resources. Innovation is a means to an end, not the end in itself. Perhaps you should stop talking about innovation and start talking about making a bigger difference, creating bigger opportunity, delivering better value. So the fourth stake: innovation is, first and foremost, about the creation of value. Mind though, this value does not only have to come in the form of money; learning, understanding, insight, awareness all create value. This means innovation is relevant to individuals as well as organisations, and regardless of whether you are part of a for-profit or not-for-profit organisation.

Understanding innovation this way also puts failure into a different light. Think about your own life, think about progress in your organisation: how many times has failure been the essential stepping-stone to a big leap forward? If you want innovation without failure you better stop now. If you are truly covering new ground, how can you possibly know, right from the outset, what the right approach and path will be? This does not mean that you should take thoughtless risks, but rather that you should identify the challenging aspects of a project as early as possible, not ignore them (which seems to be our preference) or worse, use them as an excuse not to proceed. So my fifth stake in the practice of innovation is that it cannot possibly come without failure, and that exploration, experimentation and dead ends are invariably part of it. It is not avoiding failure but how you deal with it that matters.

As to my final stake, this one is probably the most difficult to accept as it has the most significant consequences: if everyone can (and should) feel responsibility for innovation (which implies that a lot of collaboration is required) and if innovation depends on experimentation and a different attitude towards failure, then creating an innovative organisation is about nurturing a certain set of values and behaviours. Yes, processes, structures, roles etc. are helpful when pursuing the creation of an innovative organisation but they are not sufficient; it is a different kind of mindset, a different way of understanding and thinking that is required; and saving the toughest for last: it is an organisation’s leadership who need to get their heads around this. If leaders ask for innovation but do not understand the implications for mindset, behaviours and culture you will find that creating the innovative enterprise will remain a pipedream.

So, are you ready to put the stakes into the ground for creating an innovative organisation?

Notes from my Keynote titled "Building Business Success without Innovation? " given at the conference “Innovation for Business Success, Fife Partnership, Dumferline Scotland, 24th March 2010

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