Starting an entrepreneurial business, or maintaining the competitiveness of a mature business, requires innovation. Yet everyone I know seems to have a different perspective on what constitutes real innovation, and why is seems to happen so rarely. Another challenge is to debunk some of the common myths that seem prevent many from even assuming they can innovate.
As a starting point, I like the Wikipedia simple definition of innovation as “the application of better solutions to meet new requirements or market needs.” I also enjoyed a new book, “63 Innovation Nuggets for Aspiring Innovators,” by George E. L. Barbee, based on his 45-year career and work as an innovation guru with several Fortune 100 companies and the Darden School of Business.
Some of the most common innovation myths that Barbee mentions or I have encountered in my work with entrepreneurs around the world include the following:
True innovation can only come from R&D and geniuses. In reality, the best business process innovations usually come from regular employees on the front line of your business, just trying to do a better job and better serve customers. Many product innovations come from quality improvement focuses, like the Japanese Kaizen initiative.
Innovation must be driven top down by visionary leaders. Some innovations are clearly implementations of visionary ideas, but anyone at the operational level can think outside the box, individually or as a team, to suggest and implement innovations. Many innovations, including Post-It notes and superglue, were even invented by accident.
Real innovation only happens in entrepreneurial organizations. Startups may be quicker to adopt innovations, but there are clearly some large problems than can only be solved by companies with large resources. Other innovations, such as the ones from Kaizen initiatives, can only come from established organizations and processes.
Innovation is random, and can’t be orchestrated. Current research indicates that innovation is a discipline, it can be maximized, measured, and managed through formal processes. Peter F. Drucker outlined the key elements of this discipline, including methodically analyzing seven areas of opportunity, in a classic article on the subject.
Individuals who are innovators are born, not bred. Research published by Harvard in a book, “The Innovator’s DNA,” concludes that innovation is about 30 percent individual genes and 70 percent learnable and driven by motivation. The focus must be on five discovery skills of associating, questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting.
Solution innovations need to be perfected before going to market. These days, with markets and technology changing so rapidly, it’s impossible to verify an innovation before taking it to market. Thus I recommend the minimum viable product (MVP) approach with iteration, to test innovations until the product or service really meets today’s customers.
“Thinkers cramp” and “organization cramp” limit innovation. Innovation and creativity are two different things. Creativity is more about ideas, while innovation is all about implementation. The “writer’s cramp” type of block on ideas need not apply to the implementation of measurable and specific improvements and innovations in business.
It’s impossible to innovate in a staid complacent culture. Innovations come from people, not culture. When people change, due to new leadership, new motivation, or business changes, innovations occur, which can lead to culture change, rather than the other way around. Complacent cultures cause business failures for reasons well beyond lack of innovation.
You probably know more of these myths, but the message here is that initial innovation is critical to every startup, and continuous innovation is critical to the survival of every business. The market and your competitors never stand still, so every moment your business stands still, it is losing ground. Don’t let a few outdated and unproven innovation myths stop your business from achieving the impact and lasting legacy of your long-term vision.