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How to get started in innovation

Opinion Written by John Berry on 18th May 2017. Reading time: 4 minutes

Baby pushing button Featured ImageWe all get the idea that innovation’s important. If we can just improve, develop and discover more than our competitors, we can find and attract more customers and make more profits.

But it’s how to do it that foxes all but a few.

Here are some guidelines for how to get started in innovation.

Definitions

There are a host of words in English that describe the idea of getting better, advancing and realising ideas. Innovation’s just one. There’s invention, development and design. There’s research, discovery and evolution. And yet none are so all-encompassing as innovation.

Innovation put simply is the realisation of ideas for the benefit of the firm doing the innovating. Firms can innovate just about anything in their organisations – like products and services that they might sell. Or like processes and methods that make them better at realising those products and services.

History is replete with innovation.

The transistor

One of the key innovations of the 20th century is the transistor. This has spawned the integrated circuit, the personal computer and the smartphone. And this gives us the first thread showing how innovation is done. The transistor was innovated over a period of time and the impetus for this came from the desire on the part of the key players to resuscitate their faltering companies. There must always be a reason – a driver – for innovation. Something like 100 people had a hand in innovating the transistor. And a team of three realised the first device. Innovation is a collective activity.

There’s a simple reason for this.

Working collaboratively

Innovation is the spawning of ideas and their subsequent sifting and realisation. One person alone cannot generate ideas – as one commentator said, “for innovation you need a big brain”, and no one has a brain big enough. The only way to get a big brain is to add many brains together – to work collaboratively.

But why are potentially solitary activities of research, development and design not the same as innovation? And is research, for example, not suitably innovative? The answer lies in the different lifecycles that those forms of improvement and change use. Research follows what's termed a research paradigm. It's less about ideas and more about uncovering relationships between variables or discovering pahenomena - and those can be done alone. Research methods might indeed be innovative, involving supervisors and researchers working collaboratively. But the research itself will likely follow a different trajectory.

Innovations like the transistor come in waves. The transistor spawned a host of industrial and consumer devices. No innovation ever just appears. Every innovation has a huge body of knowledge as its foundation. This gives us another thread – innovation needs a huge technical competence in the domain. Innovation demands huge skills and knowledge in the subject matter. It’s no coincidence therefore that innovation often collects around universities and recent graduates from those universities.

Choose your wave

Those wishing to innovate need to choose their wave. They need to select the domain in which to study and learn the body of knowledge for it is from that point of departure – that which exists already – that innovation comes.

I’ve mentioned that innovation favours the technically competent. But innovation is easier for some people than for others.

To understand this point, one must understand human nature.

Personality

It takes a particular personality to innovate. Those high in conscientiousness need to complete projects and drive for conclusion. In addition, those low in openness to ideas tend to close down suggestions, squashing the very ideas that need to fly. Together someone high in conscientiousness and low in openness to new ideas will find it hard to participate with others to innovate. Their skills are perhaps better suited to managing projects along known lines rather than pushing the boundaries of possibility.

Intelligence

Similarly, it takes a particular intelligence to innovate. That’s not to say highly intelligent people alone need apply. But those low in abstract reasoning ability will likely find it hard to leave terra firma and fly into the world of intangibles to conceptualise ideas for goods, services, techniques and the like that are far from that which exists today.

Preferences

And innovation is a social activity. Those who prefer working on their own will find the challenges of group work difficult. Similarly, people that are low in investigative desires and who perhaps prefer more practical activities will be unsatisfied with the airy heights of innovation.

This is not to say that those people described are any less valuable to firms. It’s not to say that they can’t innovate. It’s to say that they will need to be around people whose traits are somewhat opposite to theirs for them to contribute.

So moving on, how does one get started in innovation?

Body of knowledge

If innovation needs a driver, the selection of wave and a body of knowledge, then those intent on innovating need to make decisions about where to focus. Focus comes from a clear strategy, and strategy demands that there is a problem somewhere to solve – a reason for those innovated products, services, methods or whatever.

And innovation starts with what exists already. Innovation is the realisation of an idea within a domain whilst exploiting a body of knowledge. For innovation, something always exists that can be improved, developed or evolved. So innovation starts with innovators defining that point of departure as a foundation.

Finally, how can we tell if we are being innovative?

Measuring innovation

The simple answer is to seek what’s termed the innovation step. When comparing what exists now, after innovation, with what was there before we started, is there a discernable difference? The magnitude of this difference is often the measure of innovation when judging innovation awards. The step could indicate novelty, function or efficiency – or indeed any other ‘improvement’ performance indicator.

Pulling it all together

In summary therefore, getting started in innovation has six key elements:

• There must always be a reason or driver for innovation. This comes from the firm’s strategy, choosing the right problem and wave.

• Innovation is a collective, social activity. Those working alone must collaborate.

• Staff expected to be innovative must have high technical competence in the domain in question.

• Innovators must know their point of departure – that which exists today and is to be improved.

• Firms holding innovation dear must recruit staff for their propensity to innovate and to develop those staff to have useful skills in innovation.

• Innovation is measured by the resulting innovation step.

If you’re a manager of firm that wants to get innovation going, we can help you.


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