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The Need for Variety and the Innovation Quiver

16 03 2010

[tweetmeme]Innovation, like writing, is a fickle mistress really – easy to find one day, hard to find the next – but always around somewhere.

At the recommendation of my good friend, fellow Bostonian and business author extraordinaire Steve Shapiro, I’d begun to use a local Starbucks as a place to go and get inspired and avoid the typical distractions that keep popping up in my office.

However, this last week or so, my Starbucks was failing me; it simply wasn’t doing it for me anymore. Whether it was  the constant parade of chatty college girls passing through the doors, releasing a blast of cold air to all inside; or the large trimmed windows reminding me of the yucky grey day I was trying to avoid outside , I just couldn’t find the inspiration I needed to begin writing anything useful. My trusty “innovation tool” simply wasn’t working for me anymore.

It occurred to me that something needed to change, so I got up and walked out the door. I ended up walking into the cavernous interior of the Boston Public Library, and found a desk and chair nestled somewhere within the US History section – that for whatever reason seemed to call to me. Surrounded by books on George Washington’s military career on one side and books on  Thomas Jefferson’s political career on the other and before I knew it, the floodgates had opened and off I was writing again!

As I wrote and reflected upon my inner creation demons that I was struggling to overcome just a few hours earlier – I was thus reminded of one of the most important lessons in innovation – the need for variety in an innovation program. Let me explain:

Whilst you should strive to make innovation a repeatable, sustainable process, that doesn’t mean it should be executed like an automaton. I’ve seen too many clients ultimately fail because they don’t understand that they simply can’t rely on a single trusted process to last them forever. There are 3 main reasons for this, in no particular order:

1)   Innovation is about problem solving – identifying, defining, and solving problems that will drive new growth opportunities for your company to be precise.  Problems have a tendency to be unique, to offer individual challenges that need to be understood and overcome – and whilst most can frequently be tackled in more than one way, to rely on one single methodology to tackle all of them is foolish.

2)   Modern day innovation is a highly human intensive process, relying on creative and constructive contributions from a variety of sources – employees, suppliers, customers, and more. As such, we are subject to the subtle whims of the human creative conscience.  In other words – people get bored.

They also can just get creatively exhausted. Keep asking the same subset of people a continuous stretch of questions and you’ll notice participation slowly, and sometimes dramatically, fall off. No matter how important the topic, people reach the limits of their creative thought endurance.

3)   Modern day Innovation is also no longer the domain of a few, but rather the expectation of the many. You’re now expected to run an innovation program that is no longer confined to one part of your company like R&D, but reaches out across all aspects of your business in search of the next big thing that will eek out a few more points of competitive advantage in the market.  And that reach doesn’t stop at the traditional corporate walls, but extends to a global audience with the understanding that the best solution to your problems will frequently lie outside of those walls.

What that means is that you’re now talking to a variety of people – some internal, some external, some trusted, some unknown – each of which should be handled in a different manner to obtain ideal collaborative input from them.

I’ve frequently told my clients that they should think of their innovation program as a quiver of arrows – the more arrows you have, and the better aim you have, the more your chances of coming back home with a nice venison dinner rather than a shot-up turnip.

Each arrow in the innovation “quiver” is designed to offer a different way to bring in a solution to the innovation problem at hand; and by using a variety of arrows in your innovation program, you not only become a better and more well rounded “hunter”, you also become more adept and understanding how best to overcome the environmental conditions at hand.

Ask a cross sectional group of employees for their ideas on how to solve a specific problem. No success? Then ask a different cross section of employees in a different manner. Maybe your internal staff has reached exhaustion point, or maybe they’re just too close to this particular problem. Look outside then! Maybe we invite specific suppliers and partners to have a go at the solution in our Idea Lab. Maybe we invite the local entrepreneur community to show their potential solutions in an Entrepreneur Day at our offices.  Have we found several solutions now? Maybe we bring in interesting entrepreneurs from inside/outside the company to a “Dragon’s Den” (“Shark Tank” in the US) type of event. Or how about setting up a virtual idea market to tap into the wisdom of the crowds instead?

Each of these methods and many more should be developed as innovation arrows in your quiver that can be reused multiple times to ensure an active, engaged and efficient innovation program that will drive the achievement of corporate growth goals.

It’s an interesting paradox though how many in the innovation industry, an area where we endeavor to bring a state of constant (but controlled) change into our organizations, don’t consider the necessity for that same state in our very own innovation programs.

In other words, we decide upon one arrow to use, and we keep on using it until it fails to work anymore before we begin to look around our bare quiver for further possibilities.

How many arrows do you keep in your quiver?…

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One response

15 05 2010
Jonathan Vehar

The three reasons are spot-on! Wish I could have said it this well!

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