Stop Calling it Innovation!

June 18, 2012  

A potential client asked, “What is the best way to create a culture of innovation?”

My response: “Stop calling it innovation!”

Innovation has become the word du jour.  Is it important?  Of course.  But the term has been used and abused by so many people that it means nothing. I am seeing a backlash against the word.  Inside many organizations, there are antibodies waiting to kill anything called “innovation.”

If you want to have a chance at innovating, call it something else.

Although this is an old fashioned term, I like: “problem solving.”  It is calling it what it really is.

Yes, maybe the problems when innovating seem bigger, like business model changes or the creation of new product lines.  But you are still solving a problem (ok you can call it an “opportunity” if you prefer).

If you have an innovative idea and if doesn’t solve a problem, it will not be valuable.* (see footnote)

When starting an “innovation” program (excuse my perpetuation of the word), I ask the leaders of the organization (top executives, P&L owners, Business Unit/Lines of Business leads) to give me their three most important issues; ones that if solved would be incredibly valuable.  These problems/opportunities could be related to improving productivity, developing new service offerings, stimulating sales, addressing changing market conditions, or dealing with commoditization.  We look for leverage points; things that will create exponential value.

Everything ties back to an issue, challenge, problem, or opportunity.

Once the challenge is identified, we use the best method – brainstorming, skunkworks, open innovation, outsourcing, alliances, etc – to find solutions.

After doing this with the senior leaders, we can then engage the entire organization in identifying and solving pressing challenges.  This starts the cycle.

Every organization wants to know if they and their ideas are “innovative enough.”  Who cares?  The more important question is, “Do you know which problems, if solved, would create substantial value for your organization and your customers?”

There are many companies that produce unsexy products with few “breakthrough” technologies (they are not considered “cool” like Apple, 3M or Google). However, these organizations adapt and grow at incredibly fast rates.  Does it matter that others don’t consider them to be innovative?

Explosive and continued growth is the name of the game.  By calling it innovation, you may in fact be killing what you hope to create.

Look for important problems to solve and then find the best means for sourcing solutions.  This is what you really want.

* FOOTNOTE: Please note that this does not mean that the problems/opportunities needs to be known/understood by consumers or others.  Focus groups and surveys are poor ways to identifying problems as they only tap into conscious beliefs.  For more on this, read my tip, “Your Market Research Sucks” in my Best Practices Are Stupid book.

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