Sometimes the hardest part of innovation is making the breakthrough you envision. Isn’t that where innovation always falls down? Right between the ‘Big Idea’ and the ability to put that idea into action?
The fact is that every innovation is really a total solution – all at once a great idea, a great plan for implementing that idea, and the efficient actualisation of that idea as per the plan. How well you bring these three elements together determines how successful you are at innovation.
Still, while this is true, very few bring the entire process of innovation together with an approach that can be repeated by many people at the same time. Instead, the tendency is to make innovation a few people’s full-time job for a long time, or to outsource it to a firm, in which case innovation becomes a lot of people’s job for a short time.
In working with clients, the first exercise we recommend is that they develop a solid and clear vision about what they hope to achieve and then back up that vision with a clearly defined set of strategies and goals for achieving it. Companies that have already deployed a Process Excellence program like Six Sigma need to look for gaps in their existing deployment strategy and design a mitigation plan for closing them. This is the starting point from which all other work can begin. Without this vision work, revitalisation efforts will forever falter; but with this initial work done, you can move forward with a multi-generational plan for re-launch/ revitalisation that takes all of your company’s desired outcomes into mind.
For many of our clients, this process remains something nearly impossible to do alone. In looking to us for ongoing guidance and assistance, these are the elements we empower to help them make the transition from their vision to its realisation.
The question we ask in our book, Insourcing Innovation, is why can’t companies make innovation more of a turnkey activity led and enacted by many people on a perpetual basis within the existing workforce? Isn’t this where we’ve come today: a time when companies have to innovate more and faster to lead or to survive?
There aren’t too many CEO’s who would disagree. Yet, as we said, most are still treating innovation like it’s a special activity for special people or firms. To the contrary, we see no reason why the innovation process – from end to end – can’t be standardised. If this happens, then more people can innovate more often, more reliably and in more areas of the business.
The job of innovation isn’t just for those who are responsible to make the company grow, or for those who work in new product development. Innovation happens, and must happen, in procurement, in accounting, in branding, merchandising, marketing, IT, operations and every single other organisational function.
We agree with Gary Hamel, who says there are tools, processes and systems for driving innovation that almost anyone can learn. Hamel has called for a ‘mobilisation and monetisation of the imagination of every employee’ in the style of how Toyota realised a positive ROI by investing in the problem-solving skills of every employee.
Recognising the art and the science
This is one of the central questions to answer in this modern age of innovation: Is innovation an art or a science? For the former, we have many techniques, aids and environments to foster the production of big ideas, or even just new ideas. For the latter we have such methods as TRIZ, the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving.
Yes innovation is as much science as it is art, as much art as it is science. Yet it’s easy to think that the most important part of innovation is the creative part, because most of the current books and literature focus on this. Stories abound where someone came up with an idea, often through analogy or the migration of principles, practices, products or parts from one field to another.
Tom Kelley wrote a book called The Art of Innovation in which he talks about the creative aspects of innovation. ‘Barrier jumping,’ ‘hot teams,’ ‘time in the jungle,’ ‘expect the unexpected,’ ‘boomerang staffers,’ ‘cross-pollinators’ – these are some of the terms he uses to describe the open-ended pursuit of new ideas.
In his book, Kelley cites numerous examples of creative new ideas and products, like the elliptical trainer, that healthclub machine on which one moves one’s feet in a circular motion while also moving one’s arms back and forth. A guy named Larry Miller got the idea for this machine while watching his daughter run, noticing her feet moving in a circular/oval pattern. He built a prototype and sold his idea to a fitness equipment maker.
The use of a bicycle spoke was apparently ideated in a brainstorming session, according to Kelley. By watching kids struggle with their fathers, one company came up with a nifty ‘fishing kit,’ where the rod, reel, bobbers, hooks and other essentials are packaged into one convenient product that looks like a short rod with a small tackle box attached. This is the output of what Kelley calls human factor observations: living and observing customers using products in their natural environments in order to gain insight.
We can probably also consider the intriguing field of biomimicry as innovation art, not science; although biomimicry, like all pathways to innovation, has elements of both art and science. Meaning no matter how good your idea, while you have to create it first, you then have to make it work. Still, the verities of biomimicry are based more on singular, inspired observation than on a repeatable body of research.
I go on a field trip to the Galapagos Islands, and there I find a way to remove mineral build-up in pipes (scaling) without flushing them with toxins or digging them up to rid them of calcium carbonate. One engineering team did this, studying an underwater creature that emits a protein that starts the scaling process, then another protein that stops it. The engineers mimicked this process to come up with a way of cleaning pipes without using toxins, or without digging them up.
Other examples of biomimicry include the observation of a boxfish to develop a concept car with 60 percent less drag, as Mercedes Benz did. Or mimicking the structure of a mollusc to redesign fans and turbines. Or the copying of a whale’s fin structure to design an airplane wing with 32 percent better lift in a very mature industry where typical advancements are in the order of just two to three percent.
There is no end to what you can conceive through direct observation, brainstorming and biomimicry field trips — especially when you’ve got a team of very bright people who think out of the box as a function of their very natures. Tom Kelley has names for these people, calling them ‘the anthropologist’ and the ‘cross-pollinator’ in his new book, The Ten Faces of Innovation.
But the real key question for the innovator, and the innovative company, is not whether it is an art or science, or both. Nor is it a question of what the principles of innovation are, or the practices, or even who innovates and what their different personality types are. We applaud the work of Kelley and Clayton Christensen, and Janine Benyus, who coined the term ‘biomimicry.’ (See Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature).
All their work is truly fascinating from a business as well as a practical standpoint. But in so many ways their work does not answer the essential question of how we are to take the work of innovation out from the minds of the innovators themselves, commoditise it and give it away to many thousands, even millions of people.
Taking a lesson from Six Sigma
As an analogy, Six Sigma has become omnipresent in today’s corporations for two very important reasons. One, it is a standard methodology (DMAIC) that can be deployed to many people throughout an organisation across many lines of function, personality, position, culture and geography. Two, it is most powerful in solving the most difficult operational problems.
There had been many effective and interesting pathways to quality in the past, some ‘softer’ and others ‘harder’ along the continuum from art to science. Eventually, however, the harder science of Six Sigma became the standard because of its teachable, repeatable and reliable nature, and because, as we mentioned, it can solve the most difficult problems. And if it can do this, then it can solve any problem.
Let’s think about this, then, in terms of innovation. TRIZ, the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, is a scientific method like Six Sigma, with its rigorous methodology that can be learned and applied regularly by regular people. It is also a methodology and set of tools that innovators use when a problem is too complex or difficult for ordinary means to solve.
Remember, the crux of innovation is solving the very difficult problem of finding a way to meet a need with dramatically less cost, more speed and/or higher quality. TRIZ is like Six Sigma in that it is based on a mathematical construct, albeit a different one called the ‘ideality equation,’ that forces innovators to begin their quest with the best-possible innovation solution in mind.
The TRIZ methodology, DMASI (Define-Model-Abstract-Solve-Implement), then works toward that goal the same way Six Sigma works toward no more than 3.4 defects per million opportunities for the same. If we look at innovation through the lens of Six Sigma, we see many controllable thoughts, actions and expenses related to achieving innovation. We see certain tollgates, or critical-to-innovation characteristics. We see a process that can be managed with similar rigor and similar success.
In doing so, as a company standardises on the best-possible lowest common denominator, it casts a wide net out and trains all kinds of people how to innovate using a standard method (TRIZ). This is what a couple of smart CEOs (Bossidy, Welch) once figured when they made quality a part of everyone’s job with Six Sigma. They figured it was time to be less intrigued with quality and more capable of cranking it out like there was no tomorrow.
Similarly, it’s not innovation itself that should intrigue or impassion, unless you are a scientist or engineer, or some other form of purest inventor. And it’s not even the ability to tie innovation into one neat package that matters most. What matters most, especially to the businessperson, is the preoccupation with burrowing innovation inside. This is how an organisation builds strong innovation capability that yields strong return on investment.
When you insource innovation, you get a bucket full of innovation power (everyone), not a thimble full (one smart, off the- map-talented, creative person or team), which is relatively what you get when you hire in an outside firm or rely only on certain people inside your organisation to innovate.
In some cases, however, you want to take the shotgun approach, especially when you need an innovation to provide your lifeblood. If a company is young and small, it lives and dies by the differentiation of its product. Even if a company is mature or large, it might want for good reason to take a field trip with Janine Benyus, or offload a particular innovation job to an outside firm like Tom Kelley’s.
If on the other hand a company is mature and large, it lives not only by new products but by new ways of doing business in all its many functions and locations. It also makes a lot of sense to coordinate all those people and places with a common method, and to make sure everyone is speaking the same language. In this case, teaching TRIZ or some form of structured innovation is preferred.
One of the ’10 faces of innovation’ is the cross-pollinator, someone who looks across different subject matters, environments and fields to find patterns. In many ways such people are on the front lines of innovation, because they pull the unknown into the known; they come up with a lot of the ideas that become commercialised as innovations.
Therefore, it makes sense to fuel the cross-pollinators as much as possible. Give them tools they can use to cross-pollinate better. Give them a standard, empirically based process and roadmap to follow. More importantly, make more of them, make as many cross-pollinators as possible. And do it in a way that doesn’t require them to have much of any former, particular knowledge.
This seems a good plan for turning the dream of innovation into the best possible reality.