Focusing Innovation

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

Innovation is a funny thing, it can be all around you and yet still be completely hidden. How do you know if something is innovative?  Or better yet, innovative and useful for your organization.  It’s easy for an organization to put out a statement “we need to be innovative, so send us your ideas”.  But this rarely bears fruit.

So how do you come up with innovative ideas that are useful?

In days of olde (and still for many companies), there was a Research and Development division or group or branch or a Doug sitting in a room by himself with blinky lights all around him.  Someone or some group is responsible for being innovative, for coming up with ideas that the company can use to expand or crush their enemies.  They spend their days (and sometimes their nights) thinking and designing, drawing and plotting, analyzing and discussing, changes to existing products and services or new products and services.  Anything necessary to continue keeping the company afloat.

And in many cases, this may be sufficient for the organization.  But it may not be right for your organization.  You might not need a full-blown R&D group, what you might need are innovation enablers.  Those people who can take ideas from someone else and help shepherd them through the process.  Some ideas will fail will some will succeed.  The idea of the enablers is not to come up with all of the ideas but to learn to reap the ideas of everyone else in the organization.  Or even outside the organization for that matter.

You have innovators and you have innovation enablers.  Sometimes they are the same group, but in actuality, they are probably complementary groups.  Each needs the other.  The larger the organization, the more likely you are to need the enablers as a small group of people just doesn’t have the breadth of knowledge to understand the entire organization.

For instance, the U.K. Government Digital Services group says that:

Our job is digital transformation of government.

We’re a centre of excellence in digital, technology and data, collaborating with departments to help them with their own transformation.

They don’t necessarily transform the government, they work with departments to help them.  They enable the departments to transform digitally.

The Australian Digital Transformation Agency? “Our agency was set up in 2015 to help government departments and agencies undergo digital transformation.

These organizations help other departments to be successful.  They are digital innovators and they assist other departments to be innovative.

But how does this help us be innovative?

It shows that we don’t need to have a central group from which all innovation comes, we have a central group that, in addition to innovating, helps others innovate.  And how can you help other innovate?  By helping them focus on the problem they are trying to solve instead of the solution that they want to build.

When I went to college, just after dirt was invented, we were told over and over again not to build what the user asked for, but to dig down below the surface to figure out the problem that needed to be solved.  Solving the problem was always the better solution than just following orders.  (Back when the mainframes were first showing colour we had one lady who wanted every single option on the screen to be a different colour.  Yeah, we didn’t build that.)

So how do we find the innovative ideas?  We try to get people to focus on a specific problem.  Narrow down the focus to something that can be easily discussed.  For instance, “How can the government balance the budget” is way too broad.  You’ll get conflicting ideas like:

  • Fire all the politicians
  • Raise taxes on the rich
  • Lower taxes for everyone
  • Make it a flat tax
  • Put in more tiers for taxes
  • Put in a sales tax
  • Make smokers pay for their own healthcare

The ideas you get from a really broad question are very likely going to be ideas that you won’t be able to use.  You need to focus people’s attention on a single problem, a single topic.

How can we make the user experience of dealing with automobile licensing better for the consumer.

How can we help parents choose the right schools and the right classes to help little Johnny become a lawyer.

You can even gamify the process to get peoples attention.  They submit ideas for a couple of weeks and then people vote on which ideas they think should be investigated further.  People get points for the number of votes and the objective is to climb the ranks from Novice Innovator to Wizard.  (OK, I’ve only been thinking of this for a couple of hours while walking between buildings and driving home so the details are still rough around the edges.  And possibly straight through the middle.)

The idea is to engage people in the innovation process, make it fun, make it worthwhile for them to invest their time.  The winning ideas?  They are further evaluated and decisions made as to whether to pursue the idea(s) or to let things go.  You may not always get a winner, or you may get several winners, but that is something that needs to be understood from the beginning.  Sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t.

Funnel the innovation properly, focus it on a real problem, a specific problem that needs to be resolved, and let the collective wisdom of the organization take a turn at creating something wonderful.

Many thanks to William Eggars for the inspiration.

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