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Driving True Innovation In Your Organization

many small light bulbs equal big oneDid you know that the typical 5-year-old asks 65 questions a day, while the typical 44-year-old asks only six?  Children are curious as they are developing. I believe that businesses should be curious as they continue to develop.  Unfortunately, over time many organizations settle into a ‘know-it-all’ mentality; they get stuck in the business models, processes and cultures typical to their industry.  Most organizations are not asking questions regularly to initiate true innovation, nor are they digging into the core of what makes them unique. As Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO and well known innovation speaker states, “organizations focus more on optimizing the business machine rather than creating value.” If you don’t innovate around your products and services then you aren’t optimizing your ability to successfully grow your organization and expand in the marketplace.

So, what does it take to spur innovation?

While not all inclusive, there are two common resources for leveraging your differences and establishing authentic innovation within your organization.  I focus on these two because they provide a substantial return on the effort expended:

  • Drawing inspiration and learning from industries and markets that are tangential to or different from your own
  • Hiring or selecting a “diverse” team of talent

Innovation is not about understanding your common ground, it’s about celebrating your differences. Take the Volkswagen Beetle for example; when first released in the United States in the mid-fifties, the car design was considered ugly and not functional. These failures only made the company consider upgrading and refining the car’s utilities. Mmm…they respectfully ignored the obvious criticism from consumers. Then, at the height of the criticism, their 1960s advertising campaign was launched. Each ad embraced and celebrated the car’s unique design and features.  The attributes of the Beetle were simple – it was a small, well-made car that was inexpensive. The ads created used these facts, but never used the words themselves; they simply used the concepts to illustrate (typically in a humorous way) the aesthetic differences and functionality. This “innovative” campaign made the brand stand out in a marketplace crowded with cookie-cutter ads showcasing stylish cars and the ideal lifestyle you can have by owning one. What is especially amazing is that even today, the success of the Volkswagen Beetle brand stems from its now iconic design.

How we view our opportunities and make decisions is largely based on the lens through which we view the world.  Taken on a grand scale this encompasses every observation we have amongst all the areas of our lives.  When we are in the mode of viewing things from a preset angle we can miss opportunities that are right in front of us.   Joel Arthur Barker was the first person to popularize the concept of paradigm shifts relative to organizational behavior. He began his work in 1975 and pioneered the concept to explain the importance of vision to drive change within organizations. His model suggested that the “outsider,” someone who really doesn’t understand the prevailing paradigm in an organization (sometimes they don’t understand at all!), is one of the individuals who can affect change and innovation within an organization. Barker goes on to explain, “The outsider has the advantage of asking the dumb questions…They don’t realize they shouldn’t challenge the present practices because they haven’t learned those prohibitions yet.”  Many business leaders throw deaf ears on suggestions from outsiders. Their experiences and teachings have trained them to think of these ideas as “absurd” or “too radical of a change.”  However, what may sound ridiculous could actually be the origin of a new business model, product or service.  Take for example KUKA Roboter GmbH. Since building its first industrial robot in 1977, KUKA has become one of the world´s largest manufacturers of industrial robots. KUKA robots are utilized in a diverse range of industries including the appliance, automotive, aerospace, consumer goods, logistics, food, pharmaceutical, medical, foundry and plastics industries among others. So, when your organization has saturated the marketplace – how do you keep growing? Where do you go next? The answer for KUKA was the amusement park. Yes, born out of demand for more interactive theme park rides, KUKA brought the “Robocoaster” to market in 2003.  This was the first robot in the world to be approved for carrying human passengers. The interactive ride can be designed to match customer’s requirements in theme, intensity and realism. It is more cost effective than a traditional ride since customers can change themes to adjust to rider appeal and create an infinite number of rides by using one programmable industrial robot. With large theme park corporations such as Walt Disney incorporating robotics into their stage entertainment since the early 70s, it’s amazing that someone did not combine the industries sooner. That’s why it’s important to continually observe and look outside your industry to see how other strategies, resources, and practices could be used within your organization to enhance or even differentiate products/ services.

Your innovation muse does not have to be externally driven either. As a business leader, you should also look internally. Hiring or selecting a “diverse” team when it comes to driving innovation means not following your organization’s or industry’s culture of defined technical talent.  You want to look for individuals who demonstrate strengths in other business areas and/or offer a different set of skills. For example, another interesting fact about the Volkswagen ads is the composition of the advertising agency team that put them together. The firm selected and used a diverse creative team of writers and art directors. In most agencies at this time these functions were separate. By bringing these functional areas together the firm was able to draw from the interdisciplinary perspective of the entire team. Along the same lines, in one of my endeavors I had the opportunity to hire a group of people whose primary goal was to provide the outside of the box thinking and fresh ideas that would lead to innovation within the organization I was working with. They were true “outsiders” with no industry knowledge, let alone any deep business experience.  The team was made up of recent college graduates. Since they were not limited by preconceived notions, they quickly solved the challenges provided to them. The observations they made and solutions they posited led to changes within the company’s business model and processes.  Many of these changes could be directly tied to increasing customer satisfaction and growing the company’s bottom line.

These examples go to show you that teams of exceptional and diverse talents can work together to create amazing, novel ideas.  So, to get you motivated today to start true innovation, I’ll ask the first questions: What areas of your organization could benefit from being reviewed through a new lens? What products or services can benefit from or be created by brainstorming with a strategic partner? What teammates can you cultivate within your organization to solve current business challenges?

Any new ideas or thoughts on innovation? Please share them in the comment section. I’d enjoy reading about them and who knows what fresh idea you may spark for someone else.