Time for some innovation?

One of the most frequently over-used words today in business (aside from “The Cloud” which is by far the most over-used term) is innovation.  I constantly hear things like:

We need to innovate!
We need to get a better innovation process in place.
How can we better predict which innovations will be successful?

Now innovation is a tough thing.  It’s kind of like Silicon Valley.  No one really knows why Silicon Valley is what it is.  In fact we’ve tried to replicate it several times with limited to no success.  It is by all reasonable measures, an aberration.  Nevertheless, we try to replicate it.  Likewise, we try to replicate innovation but what if we can’t?  What if innovative companies are just innovative and those that aren’t just aren’t?

One of my mentors, the wise old sage Vincent Parr, PhD tells me on a frequent basis:

“Ernie, you cannot fight what is.  You can only accept what is and react.  You can choose to stay and continue or to go or to attempt to change what the current state is.”

The key word there is attempt.  The only thing any of us really have control over is ourselves.  Now I’m not a fatalist – I believe that I can change things around me, but if they don’t change I can’t make them change, I can only influence them.

As such, to me innovation is more about team dynamics than it is about a specific tool set or new product development process methodology.  In my opinion, you cannot prescribe innovation anymore than you can teach humor.  Sure, you can teach the mechanics of humor but you cannot teach the intangible aspects of humor.  That’s just it isn’t it – the intangibles.  Some people are funny and some are not.  We all accept this I think.

Some companies are innovative and some are not.  Those that aren’t can learn the mechanics but they don’t have the spark – the intangibles of innovation and perhaps they never will.

All is not lost however.  I believe that innovation is more about people than process.  So you’re a business leader and you want to transform your company into an innovation powerhouse, what do you do?  Here’s my formula for innovation:

1) Find the right innovative leader – you’ll know them when you see them.  They will be the one in the corner with the Cheshire Cat grin on their face.  The one with the “I know something you don’t know” glow about them.  The one that you just want to follow – for some unexplained reason.  They put you at ease, they make you feel good about what’s happening and most importantly, they’re not a charlatan.  Be careful not to be taken in by a confidence man.

2) Build a team around the innovative leader – they will tell you who is on the team and who isn’t.  They need to have the flexibility to build the right team.  The right team does not necessarily mean the best individuals – but it most certainly means the right ones.  How many times have you heard there is no “I” in team?  Well that’s true on many levels.  In my opinion, there is no Innovation without a team so you could say there’s no “I” without team. 

3) Don’t micro-manage your innovation – if you have chosen well, you won’t need to set a lot of rules around the process.  By definition, it will just work.  This kind of laissez faire attitude does tend to fly in the face of the six sigma kind of world we find ourselves in today and I’m not advocating anarchy either.  What I am advocating is to give the innovation team sufficient reigns to innovate.  They key to success will be to manage the leader and let them manage the team.

How did I come to this formula you ask?  Simple.  I observed hundreds of companies over the past 20 years and I noted what the criteria for success for each one were.  In most cases I then watched them transition from innovative to ordinary and in every instance I can attribute the shift to a single individual.  Every organism has a source of power, a single thread that defines it’s macro level function – some call it a soul.  If you remove the soul, you remove what’s IT from the organism.  

I leave you with this – look first for your innovation soul and THEN build a process to manage it – if you want.  If you have chosen wisely, you may not need a process at all.  The perfect innovation soul is successful by definition.

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