Ah yes, that word — “innovation” — all too often when I hear it spoken, I want to turn into Inigo Montoya and remind people that it probably doesn’t mean what they think it means (or perhaps Vizzini and just yell “INCONCEIVABLE!” at the top of my lungs and run away laughing). And, unfortunately, this has resulted in the word being relegated to the corporate doublespeak graveyard along with such illustrious company as “synergy” and “taking it offline.”
But it’s really not innovation’s fault that people don’t “get” it — it’s the fault of the people who have repeatedly misused the term, and it’s something that we as Product Managers should always be striving for. When done properly, innovation is not only a good thing, but necessary to the evolution of your company, your business, and your product. When done poorly, or with a poor understanding of what it means, it’s nothing but a death march of pointless “vision sessions” and “blue sky thinking — just more corporate doublespeak.
In an attempt to restore innovation to its rightful position in our profession, let’s dispel some common myths surrounding the term.
When done properly, innovation is necessary to the evolution of your company, your business, and your product.
Myth #1 – Innovation Must Be Revolutionary
So what does it really mean to “innovate” or to “be innovative” in a constructive way? Well, first of all we’d have to define the term — the dictionary definition is the introduction of new ideas that are original or creative in origin. And that’s pretty good, at least as a start. But the more common definitions of “innovation” are pithy catch-phrases like “revolutionary, not evolutionary” or “game-changing” or “market-defining”.
And I’m here to tell you that those are aiming way too high — and in doing so, often setting expectations so high that they really cannot be met. Not every innovative concept is revolutionary, nor does every innovative idea change the rules of the game or define a new market. It’s great when they do, but the reality is that those opportunities (and those ideas) are few and far between.
Rather, we should look for every opportunity to be innovative — whether those are small, incremental changes or large world-changing ones. Fixing a broken process in a way that increases throughput and satisfaction is innovative. Targeting a new market segment and producing an elegant solution to that segment’s needs is innovative. Revamping your market positioning and marketing language is innovative.
Don’t get hung up on trying to solve the world’s problems in the name of “innovation” — start small, start at home, and grow from there.
Myth #2 – Innovation is a Personal Attribute
While it’s entirely true that some people are more innovative than others — some people seem more gifted in coming up with “out of the box” solutions — that doesn’t mean that you should just take those people, move them into a dark room, and wait for them to come out with smiles on their faces and your next $100 million idea on a slip of paper, all spelled out for you.
That’s just not how it works, unless you’re Steve Jobs. Which, by the way, you’re not.
A far better approach is to foster an environment and culture that embraces innovation and creative problem-solving. One that involves people in a wide variety of aspects of the company’s decision-making. To invite people from all areas of the company and to actively encourage them to speak up and propose solutions.
Most importantly, though, it means giving all this more than just lip-service — to really, honestly mean it. This means making discussions more transparent, to invite people to solve problems without asking for permission — and not punishing them when those solutions don’t work. It means taking risks and trusting that you have the right people around you to do the work without being micromanaged to death. This means letting go of the control that we all want to exert and rewarding people for their successes, while accepting that people will fail sometimes.
If you want to encourage innovation, you have to encourage risk, and along with that risk comes the necessary acceptance of failure.
Creativity isn’t right 100% of the time. And that’s okay.
Myth #3 – Innovation “Just Happens”
There’s a reason I chose the title I did — in several companies that I’ve worked for, there was this expectation that we should all “just innovate,” that somehow this magical thing would happen if we all just thought our happiest thoughts and believed really hard. But that’s not how innovation happens — innovation is hard work. It takes a deep and careful analysis of what you’re currently doing; what others are doing; what your customers, prospects, and market really value. It takes time, effort, and analysis. It requires reading between the lines and discovering the latent needs of your users, buyers, and market.
There’s not a single innovative idea in the world that “just happened” — every game-changing, world-altering, market-shaking idea that’s every happened, happened because of a lot of hard work behind the scenes, and through the exertion of a ton of blood, sweat, and tears.
If you want your people to be more innovative, then, you need to understand this, and to provide them opportunities to grow, expand, and to test new ideas and approaches. If your teams are 100% utilized, 100% of the time, that may look great on paper — but it also means that there’s no room for error, no room for creativity, no room for trying new things. You can’t expect things to change or for new ideas to come out when everyone’s entirely devoted to the status quo.
Innovation is something that you have to invest time, money, and energy into.
Myth #4 – Innovation Can Be Systematized
On the other end of the spectrum are those holy warriors who subscribe to the ISO or Six Sigma camp and believe that anything and everything can be systematized, measured, and process-driven. While there are certainly things within an organization that can be optimized for innovative thinking, the one hallmark of innovation is creativity — and when was the last time anyone combined the words “process” and “creativity” into something worthwhile?
Now, there are certainly things that you can (and should) do to encourage innovative thinking and creative problem solving. There are approaches to brainstorming, collaborative meetings, and even vision sessions that are “better” for innovative outcomes. But you really can’t systematize innovation any more than you could systematize the creation of a Thelonious Monk jazz riff.
Real innovation requires creativity, freedom, and unstructured thinking — which are the exact opposites of rigorous systematization. It requires experimentation, both in developing ideas as well as implementing them. It requires an acceptance of uncertainty in both form and function.
Yes, the results of an innovative solution need to be measured, as does the effects of that solution once designed, developed, and rolled out. But the ideation that leads to the solution is something nascent, something that must be teased out and brought to being out of chaos, not order.
Innovation is the product equivalent of improvisational jazz. The more you try to control its structure and its flow, the less beauty you achieve.
Myth #5 – Innovation Comes from Groundless Thinking
The last misconception that I want to tackle with regard to innovation is that the only valuable innovation comes from “ignoring what you know” and through the use of “blue sky” or “open field” thinking.
All of that is great if you want to create a vision that’s so disconnected from your daily reality as to be utterly useless in the real world. Which is why many “innovation” efforts fail.
When creating product, you can’t just willfully ignore the realities around you — the state of the company, the primary revenue drivers, the market segment that you’re working in, etc. You need to keep these things in mind as you work to come up with your innovative solutions — because an innovative idea is entirely useless without the necessary follow-up execution of that idea. Just like everyone tells all the wantrepreneurs out there, ideas are worthless — the value is in the execution.
And as with entrepreneurs, so with intrapreneurs. Now, this doesn’t mean that you should limit yourself to what you can currently achieve — being mindful of the situation around you does not mean limiting yourself by that same situation. And therein lies the true “magic” of successful innovators — just as with successful entrepreneurs. A successful innovator doesn’t just come up with an idea that will change things — they also follow that idea up with a plan that will bring the idea to life.
This means, again, understanding the capabilities of your company, your core competencies, your strengths and weaknesses, your opportunities and threats. It means identifying what will need to change, where you will need to grow, and how you can make that innovative vision into an innovative reality.
Innovation without execution is like a Ferrari with no fuel; it looks pretty but it’s not going anywhere.