Innovation made easier

Innovation is the wellspring of long-term business success. And it has never been more important than now, given the accelerating pace of change and increasing foreign competition. Knowing that today’s bestseller will be tomorrow’s dud, PROFIT talked to Amherst, Mass.-based Alexander Hiam, a consultant to hundreds of U.S. corporations and government agencies, former business prof and the author of Business Innovation for Dummies, to find out his ideas for generating more of your own.

What is “innovation”

I define it as creativity for a purpose. However, when I lead workshops, I often add to this definition by pointing out that it actually takes a combination of leadership and creativity to accomplish your practical purpose or plan. In my mind, successful innovation is, quite simply, the fertile combination of creativity and leadership.

To many people, innovation denotes product development. Is it time to rebrand the term?

Good point! Maybe we need a new term for the kind of practical, purposeful creativity that every job and workplace needs in order to grow and thrive. Certainly, the vast majority of the innovation going on across the continent is not technical research and development. Other types of innovation are just as important, if not more so—marketing communications, branding, business strategy, creative problem-solving, creative deal-making and negotiations, and so forth.

What’s the role of entrepreneurs in producing innovation?

Entrepreneurs create jobs and they inspire the rest of us to innovate. However, I’ve noticed that the majority of small and one-person businesses are not very innovative. They’re run by people who are entrepreneurs in name only, who may lack the skills or courage to innovate, or may simply be short on the capital needed to pursue their big ideas. It will aid the economic recovery to select promising small-business owners, train them in innovation, fund their ideas and let them have a chance on the runway.

What are the most crucial characteristics and behaviours of leaders who foster innovation?

For starters, innovative leaders are habitually creative. They have creative routines that help them live permanently outside the normal boxes. As a consequence, they have fresh ideas and they are excited about other people’s fresh ideas.

There’s a cycle to innovation, of course, so innovative leaders have to be good at other things, too. They have to be good at generating new concepts, then good at critical selection of the best ones. Once they have a good concept, they have to be good at tightening up the plans, building the right development team, championing the project to ensure it gets the needed resources, bringing it to fruition and ensuring that it diffuses or spreads through the target market.

Are innovative companies necessarily led by innovators?

Yes. Don’t underestimate the power of leadership. The person at the top sets the course on a basic, emotional level. And if he’s closed-minded and more focused on preservation than creation, then the entire organization will be, too.

What are the keys to creating a culture of innovation?

Innovation is as innovation does, so the simplest and best way to create a culture of innovation is to innovate. Just do it!

If you don’t have a good ratio of new to old projects, pull some resources away from your oldest, sinking efforts that tend to linger and sap energy and funds, and put those resources into new projects.

It’s fine to talk about intangible elements of corporate culture, but the most powerful levers you have are your budget and list of assignments. Make sure people are innovating, even if you have to push them pretty hard to keep them focused on that goal at first. Over time, the culture will follow quite naturally, and people will develop a habit of innovation so you don’t have to push them anymore. Then, all you have to do is support it by funding and implementing some of the better new ideas every year to keep that innovative spirit alive.

Tabling legitimate objections to a new idea earns some people the “against change” label. What’s wrong with challenging new ideas?

In every creative arena, it’s essential to couple creativity with critical analysis. Those people with the uncanny ability to think of a dozen problems with any idea are highly useful.

However, the problem arises when you get the criticism in the wrong part of the creative process. If you use criticism to douse the flicker of every new idea, your approach is really just to be a wet blanket, not a helpful refiner of designs.

The real problem, in my experience, is that some people are chronically negative and opposed to all change; not that some people are critical. Critical thinking is essential to the innovation process, but it needs to be done in turn—and ideas have to come first.

Can you suggest a good way to critique new ideas without discouraging the people who’ve generated them?

A great way to do constructive criticism is to put a dozen fresh ideas out on the table, then pose the constructive question, “What are the three biggest issues with each idea, and how can we overcome them?” By adding the bit about how to overcome the issues, you produce another round of brainstorming in which the group refines or betters each idea.

After going through the entire list and producing as many improved ideas as you can, then select the most promising half-dozen and do it again. In this method, criticism is rather like the rounds of folding, pounding out, dousing in cold water and reheating that go into forging a good sword blade. The idea is to temper each idea and re-form it through rounds of tough, critical thinking so that the creative thinking gets really sharp and refined, producing a more finished and usable design.

Why is brainstorming so unproductive for so many people?

Most brainstorming sessions take place in the context of an organization where innovation is not role-modelled at the top, where everyone knows the daily routine will wash away the brainstorming event as inexorably as a rising tide does scribbles in the sand.

What’s the biggest innovation mistake that businesses make?

Timing is the big problem. Resource limitations, a lack of technical platforms, too many new programs all at once or a lack of readiness in the target market or population are all common ways in which we get the timing wrong.

You can control timing to some degree by including plenty of rounds of critical thinking along with your creative thinking when you’re developing your plans or designs, and also by avoiding chasing “too many rabbits” since you really can’t implement more than one major new thing at a time.

What you may not be able to control is the level of technical difficulty or the amount of resistance in the market. Of course, you’ll study both factors and think you have a practical idea that people will like. But what if you run into unexpected complications? Then, you may need to reassess.

If it’s really, really hard to implement and things keep going wrong, or people just don’t seem to embrace your brilliant idea, then stop! Put it on the shelf for a year and see if things change in your favour. A lot of innovation failures result from pigheaded persistence.

What are some low-risk ways to overcome “paralysis by analysis”?

There is only so much you can determine about any business decision in advance. Certainly, you should research it to try to make sure you aren’t missing something obvious that could go wrong. But the first round of research and analysis usually gives you 80% of the available insight, the second round gets you to about 90% and everything after that is only improving your certainty by a tiny amount at best.

So, the real secret to not crashing and burning is to take an experimental, learning approach to scale-up and implementation. Build multiple steps into your implementation plan, breaking it down into bite-sized chunks that won’t, on their own, put you out of business if you’re wrong. Then, do your analysis during—and directly after—each step along the way.

When you take action, you produce a lot more insightful information in a hurry. That’s why a pilot program will tell you far more than a year of sophisticated analysis by top experts or survey research firms.

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