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Three common innovation mistakes

When was the last time your company came out with something really new? How long has it been since you totally reinvented a critical business process that resulted in significant cost savings or productivity increases?  If you can’t remember (or you can remember but it’s been so long you don’t want to admit it) you may be stuck on one or more of these common innovation mistakes.

  1. Confusing creativity with innovation.

Creativity involves coming up with new ideas, connections, and ways of looking at the world. Innovation is the process of turning them into products, services or ways of working that add value to one or more stakeholder groups. Too often, companies invest a lot of time and resources in coming up with new ideas, but then the process stalls. Nobody takes responsibility for continuing on with the hardest part of the process, execution, and the ideas end up going nowhere.

Turning creativity into innovation requires accomplishing three important objectives:

  • Getting focused. Companies that successfully innovate tend to focus on one or two really good ideas at a time. To select the best ideas, they have processes in place for discussing, testing, evaluating, and comparing ideas for their potential to add value to customers, generate new revenue streams, or accomplish a specific innovation goal.
  • Making sure the innovation aligns with your strategy and organizational capabilities.  If a potential innovation doesn’t align with these, it could require more people, money and resources than you have available. It could also confuse rather than amaze and delight your customers. Pushing the envelope is good, but not when it stretches you too thin or doesn’t fit your market.
  • Getting the new product or service to market in a timely and profitable manner and/or implementing it internally. Once you’ve zeroed in on one or two good ideas, senior management has to commit the time, money and resources to make the innovation happen. This should be followed by close tracking of the business performance of the new product, service, or process as well as considering the process used to develop the innovation and looking for ways to improve it.

It also helps to recognize that creativity and innovation require different skills sets.  The best practices that promote creativity have to do with teaching people how to notice, use, combine, and integrate diverse stimuli. The best practices that promote innovation involve teaching people how to take new ideas and convert them into value to customers (both internal and external).

In other words, creativity asks people to think differently.  Innovation asks them to act differently. Companies that innovate on a consistent basis teach their people how to do both.  And they are skills that can be developed.

  1. Not failing (some of the time).

Like it or not, innovation requires a certain amount of risk – and failure.  If you’re not failing some of the time, you’re not pushing the envelope far enough to develop any meaningful innovation. The trick is learning how to manage and mitigate the risk so that one failure doesn’t wipe out the company or deplete all the available resources. This requires a process for evaluating the risks and making measured decisions based on the projected return on investment.

One way to reduce risk is by reviewing your decision-making processes in real time. Before making major decisions – especially in regards to new products or services – expose your thinking process and invite others to expose their thinking as well. For example, “Here’s what I’m thinking about this issue and here’s why.  Does anyone see it differently?”

Reviewing the team process for reaching the decision can also help to mitigate risks.   Ask questions like:

  • Did we thoroughly consider the issue or rush to consensus?
  • Did the CEO or team leader unduly influence the decision?
  • Were alternative points of view encouraged or shut down?
  • Have we overlooked anything that could impact the level of risk for this project?

Often, making it safe to fail requires some serious self-examination by senior management. Are you more focused on protecting current assets than exploring new ways of adding value to your customers? Is the team’s mindset one of “play not to lose” rather than “play to win”? Do you talk a good game in regards to controlled risk-taking but then punish those who fail?  Encouraging failure doesn’t mean to disregard risk or tolerate poorly planned disasters. But if all failure gets punished, any attempts at turning new ideas into reality will never get off the ground.

  1. Treating innovation like a quick-fix add-on.

Remember way back in the ‘90s when everyone rushed to jump on the quality/process improvement/six sigma bandwagon? What most forget is that not much happened until companies stopped treating quality as a bandaid approach and began making it a part of how they do business. It’s the same with innovation. If you want to innovate on a consistent basis, you have to make it part of who you are and what you do regularly.

Start by explaining why innovation is important and how it will help your organization win. Then focus on building a culture that encourages, supports and nourishes innovation. Paint a picture of what your organization will look like when innovation becomes a way of life and how it will benefit all key stakeholders. Teach people how to think differently by providing the necessary support in the form of learning sessions, tools, and techniques.

Most people don’t know how to pause to challenge their unspoken assumptions, change perspectives, or even how to consider different angles.  They’re not used to slowing down just a little to consider options, balance the big picture with the details, or seek new data.  Adult humans are not naturally prone to constantly test and update their mental models about the world, their customers, their peers, or their organizations.  If you want to build a culture of innovation, provide the tools and support to learn these critical new skills and abilities.

Encourage diversity and build teams with different skills, backgrounds, and analytical styles. Use language that encourages employees to contribute ideas and stay open to new possibilities. Link individual effort to the big picture. Make it safe to take risks and fail. Most of all, acknowledge and reward the behaviors that lead to successful innovation.

 Obviously, there’s a lot more to innovation than not committing these mistakes. But avoiding them will put you much further down the road to successful innovation than companies that do.

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