Innovation is a collaborative process by which organizations abandon old paradigms and make significant advances. Innovative ideas come from several sources, including “unreasonable” demands or goals and time pressures. However, there are many blocks to innovation. An innovative idea is not helpful to an organization unless it is tested and implemented. This article presents the six steps in the innovation process and tells how a team can implement each of the steps.
The perfect solution is sometimes there: as a vision, a thought, a dream, or just a wish. But it is often far too complex for an individual to take it into reality.
An example of this is found in the story of Mary Peter, who is in charge of the inventory department of the Steel Plate Company. Mary had a thought: What if it were possible to put all her company’s inventories into a system? Then it would be easier to match inventories with orders, immediately confirm stock availability, and take back-order requests. It would add a new level of customer service and generate time savings.
Perhaps this was not a brilliant idea by some standards. However, at the Steel Plate Company, order entry, work in progress, inventory, accounts, credit, etc., were all separate functions with their own, largely unrelated systems. Therefore, integration of the separate functions into one system had many benefits to offer. It was an innovation for both Mary and her organization. Unfortunately, the idea died; it died because Mary killed it! She soon realized that her job would be eliminated if her idea were implemented. Furthermore, she rationalized that no one would ever agree on how to structure such a system or pay for it.
This example illustrates how many innovative ideas go nowhere because they do not link to an overall business-improvement strategy. In order to protect innovative ideas, organizations need to create a forum for the innovation process.
What is innovation?
Innovation is not the following:
· The result of a lone genius inventor.
· Just about ideas. (The problem is that people often do not know where to go with ideas or how to implement them, which is sometimes a problem with suggestion-box systems.)
· About individuality in thinking (which is what suggestion-box systems tend to focus on).
Rather, innovation is:
· A collaborative process in which people in many fields contribute to implementing new ideas. (Teams are very important to the process.)
· About products and reengineering and processes—both future processes and present processes.
· Involving of people who will challenge the status quo. The person who moans and complains may be the source of the next great innovation.
Where does innovation begin?
Innovation begins with an idea. Ideas come from the following:
· Nowhere: Such ideas usually die unless a fertile ground exists to develop them.
· A goal: An outlandish or unreasonable demand or goal, one that a continuous improvement process will not reach, often may spark innovation.
For example, the City of San Diego, California, held a team competition among its construction trades to build a house in eight hours and still meet strict building codes. For some, this seemed to be an impossible task, but not to a team of innovative construction workers, who rose to the challenge. They decided to completely rethink the entire process of building a house; they challenged the status quo. As a result, they managed to complete the task at lightning speed—in just under three hours. This was an unprecedented achievement! When the City of San Diego examined the winning effort, it learned that the team applied a combination of sensible strategies and creative techniques to achieve its goal. These included minute-to-minute planning, simultaneous construction, training and practice, re-engineered processes, teamwork, and new technology.
All these elements are at the core of reengineering the ways in which we do our work. When we “think outside the box” about our own work processes and retool them, who knows what we can accomplish? That is innovation.
Innovation often springs from pressure. Being “under the gun,” with a deadline, adds a sense of consequence to the task and a purpose to spur it. Facing a challenge—even a seemingly unreasonable one (like building a house in three hours)—spurs innovation. Studies show that positive thinkers rise to a challenge. The more they are likely to face defeat, the more they want to beat it.
Innovation is a result of abandoning old paradigms, the status quo, such as rules, policies, and set procedures. Only when you leave the rules behind can you be free to create. This is critical to successful innovation. An organization that is innovative, creative, and willing to take risks has a higher likelihood of creating organizational effectiveness.
Blocks to Innovation
The following are blocks to or killers of innovation:
· We can’t do that.
· That’s stupid.
· That’s not in the rules.
· It’s against our policy.
· We don’t have the budget.
· We don’t have the time.
· We’ll never get it approved.
· That’s not what they’re looking for.
· You’ve got to be kidding.
Even innovators themselves sometimes block innovation. Consider these historic examples:
· In 1880, Thomas Edison said that the phonograph was of no commercial value.
· In 1920, Robert Milliken, Nobel prize winner in physics, said, “There is no likelihood man can ever tap into the power of the atom.”
· In 1927, Harry Warner, of Warner Brothers Pictures, said (in reference to the desirability of adding a soundtrack to silent movies), “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
· In 1943, Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, said, “I think there is a world market for about five computers.”
· In December of 1977, Ken Olsen, president of Digital Equipment Company, said, “There is no reason for individuals to have computers in their homes.”
The Innovation Process: Six Stages
There are six stages in the process of innovation: generating ideas, capturing ideas, beginning innovation, developing a business-effectiveness strategy, applying business improvement, and decline.
1. Generating Ideas
Generating ideas is the exhilarating part of the process. It is best to do this in teams, rather than individually—which is what suggestion-box systems tend to promote. Innovative ideas generally come from a vision, an unreasonable demand, or a goal.
To get innovation going in an organization, ask, “What is impossible to do in your business now, but, if it could be done, would fundamentally change what your business does?” The answers to this question will help you to see the boundaries of a new organization. That is where innovation begins.
2. Capturing Ideas
3. Beginning Innovation
Review the entire list of ideas and develop them into a series of statements of ideas. The team members then need to agree on which ones to explore further. Next, quantify the benefits of each idea to be pursued. Do this in reference to the department, the organization, and/or the customer. Describe how the statement fits with the organization’s strategy, mission, and objectives. Finally, estimate the business potential—the expected outcomes of implementing the idea. These steps are designed to capture the idea and have the team members agree on a statement of feasibility before presenting the suggested innovation to management.
4. Developing a Business-Effectiveness Strategy
Innovation implementation begins here. It usually means rethinking an existing process, product, or service. This is not the same as looking at an existing process and improving it. It is describing what a future process (such as building a house in three hours) will look like.
The team first develops this “picture of the future.” This usually is where the innovation resides. The easiest way to start is to have the team members list their basic assumptions about the way things are now done (which the innovation is intended to overcome). Then they brainstorm, record, and discuss every idea that arises about a possible future process. It helps to use yellow self-stick notes to record ideas individually and then to consolidate them all. The team concludes by writing a paragraph that describes the innovation and illustrating it on a flowchart. This provides the team with a look at the entire future process.
Essentially the team will have detailed how to go about the process without concern for current thinking or typical procedure. This is similar to what Mary Peter did with her inventory system in the example at the beginning of this article.
5. Applying Business Improvement
Once the innovation is applied, it is necessary to continuously examine it for possible improvements (to the process or product or service). In the example of building a house in three hours, how could the team improve the process by using fewer people or less money?
The team starts this process by identifying the business-process gaps between what is done in the present and what is done in the innovation. This is followed by identifying the blockages and barriers to implementing the innovation. Estimating the difficulties, benefits, costs, support required, and risks is necessary before the team can refine the innovation process. Then it will be ready to apply the improvements identified.
In time, it often becomes obvious that what was once an innovation no longer fits. Continuous improvement of the existing process, product, or service is no longer of value; the former innovation has become outdated or outmoded. It is time to let it go, abandon the existing thinking, and set a new goal to start the innovation process once again. It is time for new innovations in response to external pressure.
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R. Wade Younger, MBA, CSP, CSM, TEFL
TheValueWave.com – Business Acceleration and Organizational Development
WadeYounger.com – International Speaking & Business Consulting