Business Innovation: Beyond the Buzz

Stephen DeAngelis

July 16, 2015

There are a lot of buzzwords used by businesses to try and convince shareholders and customers that they are forward looking, edgy, and prepared for the future. Among those buzzwords, none is used more often than “innovation.” Darlene Susco (@dsusco) writes, “Business Innovation — a term so broad and misunderstood as to be meaningless, and yet, it is the single most important focus for companies intending to stick around in an evolving global marketplace. It is definitely something worth formalizing and making a commitment to.”[1] The only way to give meaning to a term is to define it. Susco defines innovation as “the combination of existing elements or behaviors in a new way, executed to serve a purpose or solve a problem for people.” My personal preference for defining innovation is the innovation formula, which is: innovation = new x valuable x realized. Like Susco, I believe that most “new” ideas come from people who are able to creatively combine existing elements. It’s a rare gift. Unlike Susco, I don’t dismiss the possibility of entirely new ideas. Her definition, by insisting that innovation only flows from “existing elements or behaviors” cobbled together in a new way, excludes the possibility of truly new ideas. Both of our definitions, however, make value and implementation a focal point. The reason I like the innovation formula is because it makes perfectly clear the fact that if any one of the variables doesn’t exist (i.e., equals zero) then whatever is being discussed is not a true innovation.

I do like the fact that Susco’s definition of innovation focuses on serving a purpose or solving a problem. Serving a purpose or solving a problem represents the “valuable” variable in the innovation formula. The fact that Susco and I have slightly different definitions of innovation is understandable. Taylor Soper (@Taylor_Soper) notes, “Even for Dean Kamen, inventor of groundbreaking products like the Segway, the IBOT wheelchair, the first drug infusion pump, a water purifier, robotic arms, and more, it’s quite difficult to talk about and define innovation.”[2] Kamen told participants at the ICRA/IEEE robotics conference in Seattle:

“Innovation isn’t about technology alone. Innovation is the intersection of the appropriate technology for a real need that has never been made before. If the need is very real and the technology really works and it gets adopted in the world, it’s called innovation. A lot of people that are not technical think innovation is the technical stuff that those crazy geeks do in a corner. It’s not that simple.”

In most ways, Kamen’s definition mirrors Susco’s definition of innovation. The one thing all of us agree upon is that fact that something of value needs to be created. Soper reports, “Kamen stressed that technologists should focus not only on finding the right technology, but perhaps more importantly, finding the right problem.” Finding the right problem focuses the innovation process. That’s where a lot of businesses go wrong. Almost every business leader believes that his or her company must be innovative to survive; but, they don’t clearly define a problem or explain a purpose that requires a new solution. Even when they do, too often they don’t provide an environment that fosters the required creativity to bloom. Deb Owen (@Deb_Owen), founder of Percorso, correctly points out that creativity and innovation are not the same thing. Creativity, she insists, always precedes innovation.[3] She explains:

“Innovation. As a key to competitiveness, everyone is seeking it. Following the typical business- mindset, most search for the process, the seven easy steps to follow, to create innovation that has the greatest impact. But creativity lies at the heart of innovation. It is innovation’s life’s breath. Most companies and corporations utilizing old thinking and processes cannot withstand the requirements that allow for the emergence of creativity that leads to the breakthrough innovation they desire. The creativity itself eludes them. Good ideas rarely arrive on schedule, and rarely fit into standardized systems or adhere to business-as-usual mindsets. Typical business cultures and approaches are antithetical to the innovation they crave. The search for ever-increasing efficiency and standardization are enemies of the level of creativity required to create innovation.”

To overcome the natural tensions created between organization and innovation, many companies establish separate innovation labs that operate using different rules and have a distinct culture. The problem with creating a separate innovation lab is that it basically eliminates the participation of the vast majority of workers who may have good ideas but no way of making a meaningful contribution. A better way to proceed is to establish teams to tackle clearly defined problems. Just as importantly, when selecting people as members of those teams, make sure they represent a number of different disciplines. If you want a new solution, you need to get new people looking at the problem. Kamen told his audience, “The next time you have a tough problem, don’t go to the obvious people to solve it — go to someone different.” Once the team is assembled and working on the problem, encourage the kind of creative tension that is anathema in the normal work environment. Ron Ashkenas (@rashkenas), a senior partner with Schaffer Consulting, writes, “It may seem obvious that innovation requires rich, dynamic, interaction between team members — but some managers make it easier for this to happen than others.”[4] When Ashkenas talks about “rich, dynamic, interaction,” he is using code for letting team members have civil debate that leads to creative tension. He continues:

“One of the striking differences between successful and less successful teams in our study was the frequency and quality of interaction between team members, even when the teams were working from different locations. More frequent, higher-quality interactions allowed teams to develop serendipitous solutions to problems, explore and empathize with different perspectives, generate new ideas, and get unstuck quickly.”

There is a common thread that weaves its way through this entire discussion — people. Innovation begins by identifying problems or challenges that people must overcome (the value). Assembling the right people to address those problems must then take place (the new). Finally, a different group of people (generally) must be involved to see that creative solutions are actually implemented (the realization). Owen warns that if you start with technology and go looking for a problem it can solve you are trying to get the tail to wag the dog. She writes:

“Peter Drucker warned against this reliance on technology in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. In fact, innovation begins in the same place one begins ‘converting need into demand.’ It is the birthplace of demand generation. It begins with people, and requires empathy. While a good idea must also meet pragmatic requirements and be sustainable, the creativity that spurs innovation, and the type of success often associated with it, begins by addressing a problem that makes people’s lives better — often, a problem they don’t even know they have. Discovering and solving a human problem, innovation not only meets success — but scales. Innovation doesn’t begin with processes and profits. It begins — and ends — with people.”

One thing that almost all pundits agree upon is that innovation (correctly defined) is required to allow any company to survive and thrive over the long run. Owen, for example, asserts that innovation is “a key to competitiveness.” And as Susco noted at the beginning of this article, innovation “is the single most important focus for companies intending to stick around in an evolving global marketplace.”

Footnotes
[1] Darlene Susco, “Debunking 5 Myths Of Innovation,” Business 2 Community, 1 June 2015.
[2] Taylor Soper, “Renowned inventor Dean Kamen: Innovation is about finding the right problem,” GeekWire, 29 May 2015.
[3] Deb Owen, “Overcoming the Biggest Barriers to Innovation,” Huffington Post The Blog, 9 June 2015.
[4] Ron Ashkenas, “Four Conditions That Leaders Create For Innovation To Thrive,” Forbes, 22 April 2015.