Is innovation in your DNA?

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    March 05, 2019

Is innovation in your DNA?


What is innovation? What fuels it? How can companies and organizations get better at innovation? To explore those questions and more, we talked with MACHINE founder Ryan Jacoby, author of “Making Progress: The 7 Responsibilities of the Innovation Leader.” Jacoby’s strategy and innovation company helps innovation leaders such as The New York Times, Google, Marriott, Nike, Viacom and Feeding America. Prior to founding MACHINE, he worked for the design and innovation firm IDEO.

What is innovation?

RJ: That’s not an easy question — one reason why there are so many books and frameworks dedicated to defining it. One version specifically related to organizations ties back to launching new products and initiatives that make a positive impact for the organization and its market. Then, there’s also a litany of ways to define “new.” 

Innovation is different from transformation, which is more about creating the capability and capacity to do those new things.

Why is it important?

RJ: If you don’t grow, someone else in your market will — and that probably means you’ll go away in the long run.

If you take a step back and look at the world in a neutral market base sort of way, you’ll understand there will always be other organizations popping up and creating new and better ways to solve problems. In other words, at a market level, you may not care about the Blockbuster–Netflix story. But if you work at Blockbuster, you care.

Over the long term, if you’re not growing and doing new things, the market will move without you, meaning it’s only a matter of time before you fail to thrive and maybe even fail to survive.

Sometimes, it’s hard to see the time horizon over which those changes happen. Over the last 20 years, it seems as if those cycles have accelerated, so the pace of change is faster than it used to be. 

What fuels it? 

RJ: If your organization invests in getting better and truly supports its people, you’ll probably be more successful at innovating. Go back to the example of Netflix, a company that’s often held up as a company willing to shift all manner of things. That tendency is pretty true to their corporate and brand history. They deserve a lot of credit for questioning everything. These days, that type of attitude starts with an entrepreneurial leader, often the company founder, who knows how to manage growth. 

Technology drives much of the speed and pace of innovation. It’s about customers getting used to seeing new things and feeling comfortable using them. Think about the old Henry Ford adage: “If we’d asked the customer what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” Today, consumers are more sophisticated. Consider all of the apps that are downloaded and never used. Consumers are willing to take a peek but may instinctively decide the app or product doesn’t work for them. They’re more sophisticated because they have more choices.

Urgency is another important driver for innovation. How much do you want it? How much are you willing to prioritize it?

Be willing to look outside your market for inspiration. Have a desire to try new things and put them out in the world and work at them till your customer accepts them. Have a willingness to be wrong in order to be right later. Accept that being wrong doesn’t equal failure. Understand that by being wrong, you can learn new things.

At the end of the day, you also need a fundamental understanding of what people want and need. What inspires them? What drives them? Unfortunately, most organizations aren’t doing a great job with customer insights these days. Great insights are more complex than sitting in a conference room, imagining what your customer wants. 

Is innovation critical for better performing work? 

RJ: It’s certainly related. But I want to focus on better performing work for a minute. First, you have to, as a team, understand what that means. If you get that right, you’re more likely to nail beautiful work. With that said, it’s also important to have a conversation about what “beautiful” means. Sometimes, beauty is implied. And, it may not translate to an ad campaign that stirs souls.   

Deep insights can point you to unique and timely ways to unlock growth. You have to be able to say, “This is what my customers want,” and “This is how we should tell our story.” Focus on framing the problem you’re trying to solve and what “good” looks like for customers in your market. That approach leads to work that performs.

How does brainstorming support innovation? 

RJ: Brainstorming is just one of many different techniques for coming up with ideas. It’s creating a temporary condition and inviting people from all different backgrounds into that space to allow them to be more creative. Brainstorming is a useful structure to allow people to temporarily step into a place where creativity is safer and easier. It’s freeing and enabling.

Think of it as a means by which you can get diverse input.

I spent seven years at a (global design and innovation) company called IDEO. Co-founder David Kelley and his brother wrote a book called “Creative Confidence” about unleashing the creativity that lies within each and every one of us. I learned a lot from David, both in the classroom at Stanford and working for his company. I believe you can learn methods and techniques to increase your personal creativity — and organizations can create situations that allow people to be more creative in their day-to-day life. Getting good at it takes work. If we think a person is creative, they’ve probably been working really hard at it. 

It’s also about getting comfortable with not whether or not you’re wrong, but instead how you’re wrong and what you can do to fix it.

Why is it important to give staff the freedom to brainstorm?

RJ: Well, I’ll start off by saying that most companies don’t do it, at least not in a systematic way. I think that if you’re open to it, you have to take a close look at the conditions you’re creating for your people. I don’t think anyone should expect to walk into a sloppy brainstorm session and be satisfied with their experience or the result.

So, what’s the secret to an effective brainstorming session?

RJ: Some studies say brainstorming works, while others say it doesn’t. Guess what? Both views are right. Organizations that get the most out of it don’t take it lightly. 

It can’t be a free-for-all. You have to set it up, frame it, have the right facilitator and do something with the ideas afterward. Practice at the practice of brainstorming. Don’t go in with a loose, “Let’s see what we get” attitude. All the methods in the world won’t work without great framing, deep insights and a clear understanding of the problem you want to solve.

Before your session, set the stage. Assign pre-work to get people thinking about the problem you want to solve. Make sure you invite the right people to be in the room. It should be a diverse group. Get outside of your own team. Identify a scribe to take detailed notes.

At the start of the session, warm up. Encourage people to sketch ideas (versus putting one word down). Keep moving. Get people involved and help them stay on topic. Help them understand who’s responsible for the ideas and what you’re going to do with them.

Remember, you want quantity. You want to be generative. Bad ideas are going to pop up but stopping to talk about them is a waste of time. Don’t worry about whether an idea is good, because that may prevent you from getting to a great idea. 

People may think they like brainstorming because it’s a break from their day job and they’ll get pizza and M&Ms. But they won’t be as enthusiastic or effective over time if they don’t feel that sessions are valuable.

After your session, remind people that a core team will take things forward — but be careful not to set the expectation that every idea will move forward. Idea collection boxes seldom work well because they make people think, “Hey, if I drop off an idea, it’s your responsibility to do something with it.” Every idea won’t lead somewhere, but many ideas may lead to interesting themes that have an impact, even if the exact ideas don’t survive. 

Lastly, be willing to think honestly about why your session was effective (or ineffective). If the question you put forth didn’t yield a lot of great ideas, maybe it wasn’t a great question.

Understanding that this process isn’t a panacea is critical. There’s no magic bullet. If you want to be innovative, you have to really commit and use brainstorming and other tactics as just that — tactics — versus leaning on them to save you. Be clear about the problem you’re trying to solve. Then, frame and execute every day. 

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