Innovation Requires a Process

Innovation isn’t the only creative area where a process is beneficial.

I read an interesting post by Kevin Eikenberry on how creativity is more effectively enabled with a process. While I have long seen the poor results of organizations that fail to embrace any type of process/system for innovation, I never really considered the parallels in both writing and improvisation.  Since Kevin is a writer he speaks specifically to this element demonstrating how he uses a process to facilitate his writing, such as writing during a specific time of the day, collecting articles, and forcing associations using metaphors.  Another interesting comparison is improv.  I had originally thought that improv was based entirely on the actor’s skill.  Although these types of actors are very skilled, they also follow several rules and “practice” different types of exercises to hone their abilities.

It’s tempting to just start innovating by pulling a group of people together and brainstorming.  However, research and results have shown time and time again that the organizations that run innovation as a process are substantially more successful.

Innovation Project Funding

remove_riskOne of the most important factors in innovation is funding. Without it, your ideas are worthless, even the small ones. When people think of funding, they initially think money, and they’d be correct. However, money is only one form. Funding might be allowing someone time off of a project to complete an innovation, or providing them a team to divide up tasks. It’s also necessary to talk about funding from the very start of innovation. Whether it’s explicitly stated or not, your innovators will gauge their participation (or lack of participation) based on whether or not your organization has the ability to follow through on the innovations that are created–therefore funding is critical.

Once project have started, funding obviously continues to play a strong part.  While many organizations periodically rank and evaluate projects for either moving forward or abandoning, they typically look at a myriad of factors, such as marketing, manufacturing, and competition.  One way of categorizing all of your analysis factors is on the amount of risk that is removed.  Consider an entrepreneur and venture capitalist.   The venture capitalist invests in the company for the primary purpose of helping the entrepreneur remove risk.  For example, I’m given money to build a prototype to answer the question of “Can it be build quickly and inexpensively”.  When you are managing many projects, the best way to look at a go/no go decision is a) did the funding in the current stage remove risk (and did it remove enough risk) and b) is the funding for the next phase being used to reduce the next set of risks.  This is why venture capitalists are not interesting in “paying salary” they are interested in remove risks.  Try this the next time you evaluate a project.

Neat or Messy Desk for Innovation

messy_deskSome recent research by Vohs,, looked at the personalities/characteristics of people with orderly desks and those with messy desks. They ran several experiments and came to the following conclusions:

  • People in an organized room chose healthier snacks and donated more money.  Being in a clean room seemed to encourage people to do what was expected of them. So, if you want compliance and good behavior, then you want people who keep their desks clean and well organized.
  • On the other hand, the experiments showed that participants in a disorganized room were more creative than participants in an orderly room.

From an innovation perspective, this helps with the overall process.  For creativity and idea generation, find the people with the messy desks.  When the ideas need to be implemented, find the people with the organized desks.

It Wasn’t Raining When Noah Built the Ark

noah_arkAnd so goes innovation.  It’s easy to dismiss it on a sunny day, but once the floods start, it’s too late.

Innovation is an underlying cultural strategy.  Because it requires the coordination of many different aspects, such as management, human resources, and work processes, the foundation must be established before results can be seen.

Low workplace motivation remains a clear and present danger to productivity in 2013, and according to multiple studies/articles/research, employee engagement continues to remain at very low levels.  Perhaps the fear of looming layoffs, being skipped over for a raise, seeing an important project cut due to budget constraints, or some other factor, has caused the disconnect.   The end result is that it is impacting innovation.

In order for innovation to work, these issues must be addressed continuously.  Think about this simple example.  An airline pilot trains repeatedly on flying an airplane when one or more of the engines are not operating.  They learn how the airplane handles, what the procedures are, and the best way to solve the problem.  In reality, most pilots will never have to face the issue.  But, when they do, solving this problem is second nature, because they have done it so many times before.  (Read about the Gimli Glider which is even more amazing the the landing on the Hudson.)

In order to build a culture of innovation, use this methodology to drive innovation from the top of the organization:

  1. Engage a key decision maker in your organization on the need to solve one of their pressing problems.
  2. Meet with experts and flesh out all of the details of the problem. Make sure that
    the statement is understandable and “visible”.
  3. Advertise your problem (and process) in company newsletters, web home pages, bulletin boards and meetings.
  4. Review and comment on submitted solutions.
  5. If you’ve been successful, then you should have no trouble finding and assigning accountability to the ideas that should be implemented.
  6. Award your submitters. To figure out the best motivators for your
    organization, answer the question: “What’s in it for me?”





Innovation and Pain

surgeryI was reading an article in the New Yorker comparing the adoption of surgical anesthesia versus antiseptics–two very important medical innovations. Some background is essential.


In 1846, surgery was both painful and brutal. For most procedures, even a tooth extraction, patients were pinned down by assistants as they screamed and writhed in pain. Surgeons were trained to work with lightening speed to minimize the duration of the pain. Clearly, there was an emotional toll for both the patient and the surgeon. In October 1856, a gas was discovered by William Morton (a dentist) that could completely render a patient motionless and quiet. He demonstrated the gas to a surgeon, who was awe-struck by its effects, and who quickly published a paper in November 1846 in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. By the middle of December of the same year, surgeons were using the gas in London and Paris, by February 1847, anesthesia had been used in almost all of the major capitals in Europe, and in June 1847 by almost all regions in the world—mind you that this is before the internet–all of this communication was by letters, meetings, and other “slow methods.”  So, in took on 8 months from discovery to wide spread use! By 1852, anesthesia for surgery was a standard procedure everywhere.


Now consider infections. During this same time period, infections were the major cause of death for surgical patients, with as many as 50% of patients falling victim to post-surgical infection, sepsis, and death. Clearly, this is a big problem. In the 1860s, a surgeon named Joseph Lister came to the conclusion that infections were caused by microorganisms after reading a paper by Louis Pasteur.   Lister perfected his sterilization techniques and eventually published a paper in The Lancet in 1867 that documented spectacular reductions in death following surgery. His process consisted of many steps, such as washing hands, sterilizing instruments, and using sterile gowns and gloves.  Unfortunately, in wasn’t until nearly 40 years later that this practice became universal.


So we have two techniques that revolutionized medicine, yet one was adopted in 7 years and another in 40 years. Arguably, more lives could have been saved if surgeons had adopted the sterile techniques that were presented, but they didn’t. Both techniques required scientific/technical discoveries, i.e., the composition of the gas for anesthesia, and the realization that germs are present and need to be eliminated for infections. There are two main differences. With anesthesia, the doctor’s problem was solved, i.e., screaming, writhing patients (not to mention the emotional toll) making their job easier and less stressful. Also, the solution solved a very visible problem–screaming patients, something that was readily understood to be a problem. With sterile techniques, the problem was solved for the patient (they didn’t die!), but the doctor had little to gain. The patient was quiet during surgery, and would die several days or weeks later. Also, the problem was invisible–the killing of germs. It was hard to see that washing your hands or using sterile instruments was really solving the problem.

How does this apply to Innovation?

There are lots of good ideas that come up in organizations, but it’s the implementation that is the problem. It becomes hard to implement something when you are not directly solving your own problem and when the problem you are solving is invisible (to you). Organization’s are typically relying on “customer feedback” about a problem. In many cases, the people solving the problem don’t encounter the problem on a day-to-day basis like their customers—they may know and understand the solution better, but are not forced to “make it work” in order to get their job done like their customers are.   Consider just the simple example of a headache. If a co-worker of friend is having a terrible headache, you’ll probably lean back in your chair and recommend they find an aspirin, but if you are having the headache, you’ll knock over walls and doors to find a bottle of Advil.  The other aspect is the visibility of the problem.  Consider that you’re car stops working and you pull to the side of the road–you have no idea what is wrong. You open the hood and everything appears to be in order. In this instance, the problem is invisible, and you will probably just wait for your car to be towed to a service station.  Now imagine when you open the hood, you see that the battery connection is completely off–you immediately re-attach it and solve your problem. It was a problem that was visible and you fixed it right away.

These are the several major issues you must resolve when implementing new innovation:

  1. You must clearly articulate the pain/problem that is solved into something that everyone understands.  (If I don’t think I have a headache, then I am not going to be interested in your solution)
  2. You must make it visible. I think it is just a fact of life that it is easier to solve something where the solution is tangible. In business, it’s harder to sell services than products primarily because it is hard to see the results of services.
  3. Timing.  I believe that the time between the problem and the resolution must be short, or you’ll have to explain more.

In the case of infections, surgeons realize that having patient’s that live increases their collections (and they make more money), experimentation and microscope improvements make the problem visible, and it the benefit was immediate (the patient stopped squirming right in front on you).  Simply said, we need “sales” techniques to convince others of the value and benefit to themselves.

One way to do this is through innovation challenges. Challenges are problems proposed by organizational leaders.  The problem has value because solving it could result in a promotion, financial rewards, or other recognition.   Challenges force the problem to be explained in concrete terms and in simplified language so that everyone understands the issue, value, and benefits.  Challenges are also time-limited in order to force the timing between problem and solution.



Innovation and Internal Competition

rodneyThere are many elements critical to a successful innovation program, such as focus, a good process, and resources. Many organizations put all of these elements in place, but they still end up failing. Interestingly, their programs end up creating worthwhile projects, but the projects never materialize or are rapidly killed.  What happened?

When this occurs, many times it’s because the innovation teams worked in a vacuum from the rest of the organization.  (I immediately think of this clip from the movie Back to School with Rodney Dangerfield  In this clip, Rodney talks with a business professor about how to start a new company).  By this, I mean that they didn’t consider the “real way” that things work in the organization and believe that the sheer brilliance of their ideas and projects would cut through any organizational issues.  In most cases they are wrong.  For the most part, large organizations are built to kill ideas–they can’t help it.  There is competition from existing projects, political connections, important customer issues, and legal areas.  New ideas can easily be quashed by any of these, so it’s important to figure out a way to navigate through the organization in order to bring these ideas to fruition.

One of the best ways to mitigate many of the problems you’ll encounter with internal competition is to get a sponsor.  Sponsors have several characteristics:

  • They have political clout–usually higher level executive
  • Have experience in an area important for your project
  • Can pull resources
  • Provide sound advice

Sponsors will help drive success for a project by providing these valuable assets.   They also will help you with the 80-20 rule, or in other words, they know how to get the most out of the organization with a minimal amount of effort.  Think about something simple that you want to do, like plant a garden.  You may have come to the conclusion that a garden would provide your family with lots of benefits, such as low cost, organic, and fun.  If you’ve never done this before, there are a couple of ways to go about it.  You could go to the library, local nurseries, and the internet and research the best practices for planting. You’d try and learn the best times, best plants, and best cultivation techniques.   Without a mentor, you’d most likely make some mistakes, i.e., planting too early, picking the wrong varieties, or not using the right fertilizer.  However, if you talked to your neighbor (who has had a successful garden for the past 10 years), he’d be able to tell you exactly what to do.  He’d provide helpful advice on the best things to plant so that you’d get the best yield, avoid bugs, and prevent rabbits from eating everything.  He’d know where to get the best deals on supplies, and he’d probably have helpful tools for you to use, like a rototiller.  The best part is that you’d learn all of this information is a short amount of time, and you’d get someone who would help you through the entire process.

The same is true for an organization.  A sponsor can help you quickly navigate all of the issues that you’ll encounter and provide you with advice and resources to get to your end goal.  Sponsors usually have “skin in the game” as well, and will benefit from your success.  They may be the ultimate manager of the product you develop, or it might be their customer’s problem that gets solved.  They’ll be able to shield your project from others, and insure that it moves forward, in essence, they’ll mitigate the competition.

There are two ways to go about finding a sponsor.  First, you can sell your idea to potential sponsors, hoping that one of them will adopt your project.  Second, you can talk with potential sponsors about what issues that they need solved and try to innovate for their success.  I believe that the second way is easier because you’re helping them with their problems, and the “sale” is easier.  The downside is that your ideas may not be 100% yours, and you’ll have to be flexible to make it happen.  However, if you’re successful with this approach, then you’ll gain more and more success, and have more control over what you create.  Think about teaching one of your kids to drive.  The first few times, you make certain that you have lots of control over the situation by picking the location and time.  However, as they progress, you become more comfortable with their decisions, and eventually send them on their own.

Daily Rituals of Creative Minds

Margarita Tartakovsky of the World of Psychology writes a review of a new book by Mason Currey’s entitled Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. It’s fascinating to read about the idiosyncrasies of people who are considered the most innovative and creative, and it should give pause to businesses that manage and motivate these types of individuals.  The bottom line is that these people are rarely self assured in their creativity and have adopted a variety of coping mechanisms from daily exercise to shunning unlucky numbers.  Even the most creative have self doubt about their work.  If you’re managing this group, make sure that you encourage their progress and reward both failures and successes.

Check out this Scientific American article on some of the physiology on exercise.

Jump Start your Creativity

All of us experience times when we just can’t get our creative juices flowing. Margarita Tartakovsky of the World of Psychology provides a list of 15 ten-minute activities that can enhance your creativity. They are:

  1. Go on a photo safari.
  2. Do housework.
  3. Cook.
  4. Make a small collage.
  5. Daydream.
  6. Create a list.
  7. Check out your go-to inspiration.
  8. Socialize.
  9. Draw.
  10. Play.
  11. People-watch.
  12. Find a quiet spot.
  13. Problem-solve with your dream advisory board.
  14. Create a collection of prompts.
  15. Just start.

10 Tricks to Improve Memory

MethodofLociI found this short article and kept forgetting to post it! There are a couple of fun tips to improving your memory–some of them based on significant research and repeated results. Based on what I’ve read, the best is the “Method of Loci”.  Read the article here.

Beer and Coffee for Innovation

I read an article by Mikael Cho at Lifehacker about the effects of beer and coffee on innovation. There are lots of studies on the effect of caffeine on productivity, with the overwhelming consensus that it can increase quality and performance on tasks that don’t require too much abstract thinking.  So once you have a good idea, coffee will help you implement it faster/better.

For the beer side, he cites an interesting, but not particularly scientific study of alcohol and its effect on creativity.  He explains, “author Dave Birss brought together a group of about 20 advertising creative directors and split them into two teams based on their amount of career experience. One team was allowed to drink as much alcohol as they wanted while the other team had to stay sober. The groups were given a brief and had to come up with as many ideas as they could in three hours. These ideas were then graded by a collection of top creative directors.”

The result was that the team of drinkers not only had the most ideas, but also came up with the 80% of the best ideas.  No information was provided on their productivity the next morning!