Patrick Eng
Marketer, Developer, SEO Specialist, Gamer, and Random Knowledge Blogger


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Week 20 - What I Needed to Know About Being Innovative


Dartmouth professors Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Timble asked hundreds of managers what they defined innovation to be.

What they found was that many managers associated innovation with creativity. The problem is that innovation is not creativity, and considering them as synonymous is a grave business mistake. Here's why.

Creativity focuses on the idea. Innovation ensures execution.

Innovation takes that idea that you created and makes sure that something actually happens with. The issue many businesses face today isn't so much a lack of ideas, but more a lack of efficient ways to bring those ideas into reality (i.e., innovate).

So, let's do some math here to figure out an organization's capacity for innovation. Our three variables are:

  1. Innovation capacity

  2. Creativity

  3. Execution

To get the innovation capacity, we need to multiply creativity by execution (using a scale from 0 to 10). Multiplication is being used instead of addition since if either creativity or execution is 0, then capacity will also be 0.

Vijay and Chris then surveyed thousands of Fortune 500 executives to get numbers on how they would rank their companies' creativity and execution levels on a scale from 0 to 10.

They found that many companies were confident in their ability to generate new ideas but lacked in the implementation of those ideas, getting an average score of six and one respectively.

Using these numbers, we can do some simple math to figure out which we should improve on more, either increasing our creative level or our execution ability (it should be pretty obvious but let's have the numbers speak for themselves).

Let's look at our as is state:

  • Capacity: 6 (creativity) x 1 (execute) = 6

For our to-be state, we want to see what would be more beneficial, either increasing our creative level from six to eight, or increasing our execution level from one to three:

  • Capacity: 8↑ (creativity) x 1 (execute) = 8

  • Capacity: 6 (creativity) x 3↑ (execute) = 18

As you can see, the numbers are clear. While companies might want to focus more on coming up with new ideas, a poor execution score essentially makes it a waste of time. Take this with a grain of salt though, since a company could have a fantastic execution score but an atrocious creative score and won't be any better off.

When companies begin losing out to their competitors, it's not because they had better ideas than them, it's because they followed through with that idea and made it into a reality.

Vijay and Chris found that the hardest part of innovating is actually after it begins to show signs of success since it starts to consume more resources and potentially conflict with internal structures.

Managers seem to be obsessed with the idea generation hunt, mostly because pursuing the idea and not the implementation of it:

  1. Doesn't create stress in the core business

  2. Is more fun and cool, while implementation is boring and tedious

  3. And the company thinks they're already good at execution, whereas in reality, they're just good at executing their core business

As the wonderfully overquoted Thomas Edison quote goes, "Innovation is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration." You have enough ideas already. Actually do something with them now.

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When it comes to innovation, nobody knows what it means and everyone defines it differently. That's the beauty of buzzwords.

Classical definitions of innovation also point to the general obscurity of the word. I.e., the main definition is "the action or process of innovating." Awesome, thanks Google.

In this article, the author talked with 15 innovation experts and how they define their expertise. More specifically, the author asked them:

  1. Their own definition of expertise

  2. How people mistakenly talk about it

  3. How to change your perception of it

I won't spend time summarizing each person's answer to all three questions, but I will point out some of my favorite ones.

Stephen Shapiro

When asked how companies can switch their perspective or conversation, Shapiro responded by saying that "framing the challenges correctly is a critical key to innovation." But how are you supposed to frame it correctly?

Well, Shapiro also talked about how companies need to stop telling people to think outside the box, as doing that produces a lot of unnecessary noise, reduce value, and increase distraction. Shapiro believes that innovators need to focus more on the question and not the solution since many people begin thinking outside the box at first and then come up with ideas that aren't even suited for the box they originally started in.

Pete Foley

I really just liked Foley's basic definition of innovation "as a great idea, executed brilliantly, and communicated in a way that is both intuitive and fully celebrates the magic of the initial concept." Innovation doesn't necessarily have to be some disruptive or attractive, and we actually need to stop labeling all these innovations as such. Because if everything is disruptive, nothing is.

Drew Boyd

Boyd has had the privilege of working with some innovative companies around the globe, and what he's found is that employee's don't realize how innovative they already are. Everyone wants to have a culture of innovation, but don't realize they already have (at least to some degree). What I like about Boyd's response is that he see's innovation as something that should be taught like leadership or ethics. Put employees through formal training on how to manage ideas and put them through the pipeline, and then see what they come up with.

Jorge Barba

What I like about Barba's definition of innovation is that he defines it as "the future delivered." While we're not getting hoverboards commercialized yet, he sees innovation as something new that is providing value to people.

Barba focuses a lot on establishing bold goals, giving employees the resources they need, and then getting out of their way. He puts faith in people and believes that they will rise to the challenge and implement something great.

While all these people are experts in innovation (since once it's in your Twitter bio, it's undeniable), many of them had quite different interpretations. What I really liked about this specific article though was that it gathered the core definitions behind each definition and smashed the most common ones together to form the ultimate definition.

Based on the top 5 definitions, the author created this new definition of innovation:

"Executing an idea which addresses a specific challenge and achieves value for both the company and customer."

While I think that not having something about the idea being new or countercultural is a bit of an oversight, I think that this definition does at least cover most of what innovation is - executing an idea in a valuable way.

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Innovation - achieving disruption or following a set of steps?

I guess we could say both. But let's look more closely at that second part.

When people talk about innovation, they tend to focus on what was accomplished. But why don't we talk about how they were able to accomplish it instead and see what it takes to be innovative.

This article, titled "Thoughts on Improving Innovation: What Are the Characteristics of Innovation and How Do We Cultivate Them?", focuses on a research paper published by Victor Poirier and nine of his colleagues at the University of South Florida's Institute of Advanced Discovery & Innovation.

The purpose of this research paper is to "identify key innovative traits as initial steps in exploring the feasibility of teaching innovative thinking." So, similar to Drew Boyd's theory in the above section, what do we need to do so we can teach people to be innovative. The qualifier in this paper though is innovation might not be teachable. But, people have necessary traits that are necessary for innovation, and certain training might help enhance or awaken those traits.

The Innovation Process

This research paper breaks the process of innovation into five elements:

  1. Inspiration

  2. Creativity

  3. Motivation

  4. Entrepreneurship

  5. Innovation

Inspiration doesn't just come out of nowhere and slap you across the face with something new or good. You most likely have been pondering a problem or a situation for a while, trying to think of some way to resolve the issue or improve the situation.

In almost every instance, you'll have to be creative, which this research paper defines as "the ability to think about the world in new ways, to think from a clear, open perspective, and to be unencumbered by existing knowledge" (page 325 for anyone who downloads the PDF).

Being creative and motivated isn't enough though and is really only the halfway point. You now need to channel your inner entrepreneur and put your idea to the test.  When your idea is successfully implemented and accepted, you've finally achieved innovation.

Your Innovative Traits

People are built to be innovative. It's an inherent ability that we all share, but some people are more attuned to it than others.

The purpose of this research paper was to identify those abilities so we could have an easier time training ourselves to refine them. Don't get me wrong, I've never really seen myself as innovative. But what I do know about myself is that I'm curious and open to risk, which just so happens to be innovative traits.

In this instance, if I'm able to cultivate those traits and refine them, I could increase my innovative ability. I just have to find various ways to strengthen those areas.

Nature vs. Nurture

Ah, the age-old debate. When it comes to being innovative, it might help to surround yourself with innovative people. They tend to have an effect on you.

Sure, if you come from a long line of innovators, you might start off with a head start. But as adults, you dictate the direction your life takes, and you decide whether you create moments of innovation or not.

A Dash of Ego

Successful innovators know when to show their ego and when to squash it. While ego is often viewed as negative, it can be good to have a little bit here and there as a way to kickstart yourself.

When your ego pushes you farther than anyone else, in terms of learning, working, and concentrating, you're able to achieve so much more. Sure, you might begin to see yourself as above others, but as long as you avoid falling into that trap, you can harness ego as a powerful tool.

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Too Long; Didn't Read

Innovation is a wonderfully overused and woefully ambiguous buzzword that people can't stop throwing around. To be successful, a company must be innovative, they just need to figure out what innovative means for them.

Innovation, or at least the capacity for it, can be broken down into a simple mathematical formula. While it's not the end all be all, it does give you a good idea on how important both creativity and execution are (since as we know, creativity is not the same as innovation).

This formula is simply:

  • Capacity for Innovation = Creativity x Execution

Your creative and execution levels all go from 0 to 10, meaning if either you have 0 creativity or execution ability, your capacity is also 0.

As for a more clear definition, the best we can do is ask the experts. Most innovation experts are defining innovation in some way that includes the following aspects:

  1. It involves creating ideas

  2. It involves executing those ideas

  3. It addresses some sort of challenge

  4. It adds value to the company

  5. It adds value to the customer

Even though the actual definition of innovation may vary, scientists are already working on a way to train people to be innovative. This is possible because innovators tend to have a series of steps that they take before they arrive at the innovative moment:

  1. Inspiration

  2. Creativity

  3. Motivation

  4. Entrepreneurship

  5. Innovation

Following these 5 steps will eventually bring the person or company to the innovation level they were hoping to achieve.

60 percent of the time.gif

The key to innovation is that it doesn't just happen to you. You have to make moments of innovation, whether it be surrounding yourself with innovative people or steeping yourself in a problem that needs to be solved. Trust in your brain to be creative, and then execute on your ideas. Don't let all that brainpower go to waste.

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Patrick Eng