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How to make sense of business innovation

Innovation, it’s everywhere. Everyone is doing it – and doing it well apparently. That’s how it feels sometimes and how plenty of “other organizations” (i.e. your competition) want you to feel. Perhaps a better way to look at it is that it feels like everyone must be doing it better than you because surely no one is doing it this poorly.

It can be easy to think that way – but the team at Expert Toolkit can assure it’s not that way at all. What way you ask? That you aren’t as poor at innovation as you think you are, or that others aren’t as good at innovation as you think they are? Well it’s both.

You see, innovation is not easy. Why? Well there are a few reasons and a variety of factors that we believe contribute towards many organizations struggling with innovation:

  • Prioritizing the Important over the Urgent: So much of the “day-to-day” is taken up with the delivering on what needs to get done today – not tomorrow. This year’s results are delivered yesterday, today, tomorrow, next week, next month – not next year and certainly not in a few years. This mindset and constant inflow of things that need to be done “right now” can snuff out innovation in all but the most disciplined organizations.
  • Knowing what Innovation is: What is innovation exactly? Are we innovating now? What about now? Was what we did yesterday innovation? How do we know? It can be hard to define and therefore get a handle on the appropriate level of innovation your organization should be doing. Should we do more, less? Are we doing the right types of innovation, in the right categories and parts of our business?
  • Measuring it: How exactly do you measure innovation? Is it the quality of the ideas that are generated? Is innovation only measured when those ideas are delivered and produce results? How do you measure the value of killing a bad idea quickly? Is it more value to come up with half-a-dozen moderate ideas or one large one? Where does the value of diversity get measured?
  • Getting people to do it: Often in many organizations, the cultural barriers and impediments to innovation are significant. These can be visible and hidden. There is absolutely a psychology at play at the individual levels “what if everyone thinks my idea is stupid? What if it doesn’t work? How will failure impact my performance rating?”. There are also the team dimensions to innovation “reluctance”. How do you incentivize one group to get behind the idea of another group? There are also the hierarchical and bureaucratic factors. How do you get it past your boss? How do we get the various layers of command to get on-board? Many companies seemly have a deep-seated level of “institutionalized no” which can make innovation incredibly difficult. The barriers to yes can be seemingly insurmountable.

Innovation Prioritization Business Analysis Tool by Expert Toolkit

Innovation Prioritization Business Analysis Tool by Expert Toolkit

So, what’s a way to think about innovation that is constructive and will move the organization forward without taking away from what needs to get done daily? Here are a few simple suggestions from the team at Expert Toolkit:

  1. Democratize it: Don’t leave it all to one person or group. Innovation needs to be part of everyone’s job. Generating new ideas for how to do things better and getting behind larger initiatives to change the game has never been more important. One role or organizational unit may “take the lead” – but this should never result in the view that “innovation happens over there, not over here”. Involvement in all aspects of the innovation cycle to some extent should be part of everyone’s job description and performance measurement.
  2. Experiment: Innovation is fundamentally about experimenting, learning and adapting. So, apply the same mentality to the approach for incorporating innovation into your organization. Try different innovation methods, models, approaches and see what works. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to innovation. What works for one organization may not work for yours.
  3. Get principled: Define a set of guiding principles and objectives for the organization to “innovate by”. These principles should clearly answer a set of key questions: What is considered innovation? Why is it needed? What does good look like? What is expected of everyone? How will we measure it?
  4. Diversify: Innovation value comes often in unexpected areas and in unexpected ways. It’s easy when innovating to focusing a lot of energy in areas that seem like “sure things”. This is risky. “Sure things” often turn out to be less than sure and you are missing the opportunity to venture into parts-unknown that may be far more adventurous and enlightening. Innovation masters innovate along multiple time horizons, organization dimensions, size dimensions and categories.
  5. Make it operational: Make innovation part of the day-to-day. The easiest way to fend of the typical operational demands and inflow of urgent items is to incorporate “non-negotiable” innovation activities into the every day activities. Innovation fails when it is an afterthought when all energy, creativity and brain power is consumed solving daily operational issues. Look for ways to incorporate innovation into daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly cycles – with clear expectations, tasks, accountabilities, processes, roles and outcomes.

A big part of what can help innovation is structure and process to bring clarity to the nebulous and the ambiguous. This can come in many forms – including a well-defined method and tool for capturing innovation ideas and prioritizing them – incorporating qualitative and quantitative input from a range of stakeholders across the organization. The team at Expert Toolkit have developed an Innovation Tool and Prioritization Dashboard based on what have seen work at organizations who take innovation serious. Give it a try and tell us what you think. What have you seen work? How can we make it better?

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