Innovation: it really is a case of why and how

Innovation: it really is a case of why and how

I spend a great deal of my time working with leaders to help them improve and accelerate their innovation results. 

It’s a wonderful life because I love what I do and helping individuals and teams unlock their creativity seems a worthwhile activity.

My starting point is always the following six questions. I call them the five Ws, plus one H – the how.

These are simple yet profound questions and if answered can help kick-start any innovation journey. Here they are, in no particular order as they are all interconnected.

1. What does innovation mean in your organisation?

This is the most basic of questions yet most leaders have trouble answering it. My experience is that there is no universal definition of innovation. It can vary by organisation, industry, heritage and culture. It could be disruptive or incremental or a new product or something else.

The important point is that every leadership team should be able to say ‘at our organisation innovation means xxx’.

If they cannot agree among themselves then what hope will the rest of the organisation have in understanding and engaging in innovation?

2. How to measure success?

The second question links to the first. If you have defined what innovation is then it is easier to know if you are winning or not.

For example, if innovation is about new products (think 3M) then an appropriate measure might be the percentage of sales that comes from new business in the past three years (a 3M measure) or return on investment or time to market or customer or employee satisfaction etc.

Remember there might be multiple measures but the key point is to agree on what is to be measured and to do it regularly. 

If you do not measure the results of your innovation efforts then it is easy to stop the program or starve it of funds.

3. Where to innovate?

This is also such an interesting question.

I have found that if you can define an innovation gap then leaders cannot help but get involved. An innovation gap is where there is a shortfall between some desired performance (for example, revenue growth) and the current level.

In this way you have painted a compelling reason to become more innovative. Because most people accept the logic that thinking and doing the same thing over and over again will not lead to a different result.

The other big advantage is that articulating an innovation gap provides a real focus for your innovation efforts and hopefully some quick wins.

4. Why innovate?

Innovation is about change, trial and error and sometimes failure.

If you want people to engage in the innovation process you need to give them a reason to do it which is believable, compelling and urgent.

For example, at 3M the ‘why innovate?’ story is that they need to keep innovating to fight off the competitive threat of private labels.

For greater traction this should be presented as a story or narrative that every leader can interpret and communicate in their own fashion to their respective teams.

5. When to innovate?

Innovation, like any change program, has to be a constant and consistent journey. If you wanted to get fit for example then a few visits to the gym once or twice a year will not be enough. If however you commit to a work-out every day (or every second day) however small then you have a much better chance of achieving your goal.

Innovation is exactly the same. New and different approaches should be tested all the time. In fact, one of my questions to managers and leaders is — what are you testing this week? It does not have to be a big thing; it could be a different time to have a weekly staff update or a 45-minute meeting, for example (rather than the usual one hour catch up).

Constant testing, learning and sharing are the hallmarks of every successful innovative business.

6. Who to engage first?

I have found that some people love innovating, some will be engaged with a bit of a nudge and others struggle with the entire concept.

An important discussion is to try and identify these ‘early adopters’ in any organisation so that you can engage and have them champion the innovation message. 

These could be within the organisation or certain customers, suppliers or partners that are open and receptive to new thinking, ideas and approaches.

The five Ws and one H of innovation are the basic building blocks of any innovation initiative.

Remember there are no perfect or correct answers. 

Simply engaging leaders in these types of conversations will greatly enhance your chances of success.




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