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Five Ways To Successfully Innovate

See if this sounds familiar to you:

The CEO says, “We must become more innovative.”

She hires or assigns a Chief Innovation Officer.

An innovation task force is formed.

The task force comes up with a really cool code name for itself, e.g., Project Blue Ocean.

Secret meetings take place.

There is excitement and murmuring in the halls.

An ideation event is staged and the greatest minds are invited.

Crowdsourcing software is purchased and people excitedly submit their most treasured ideas. (At last they will finally get noticed for their brilliance.)

And finally things are underway. But there are too many ideas and most of them don’t seem doable. Some are silly. Most are scary. Some have been tried before.

So one of three things happen:

  1. A ridiculously obvious and safe idea is selected
  2. The (brutally bad) idea of the most senior person on the team is selected
  3. A perfectly good idea is selected but then is debated and refined until it offends nobody and in the process loses the luster that made it good in the first place

 

It doesn’t matter what option is picked. The selected idea fails, and Project Blue Ocean fails. The Chief Innovation Officer is eventually fired or reassigned and “innovation” is now a four-letter word.

(Insert heavy sigh here.)

No wonder it is easier just to sell the same old stuff or work on operational improvements.

After working on hundreds of innovation engagements, I have a sobering message for you: The above is not fiction. Too often it is what happens when a well-meaning company embarks on its first innovation journey. If you work in a conservative (read: scared) culture, my bet is it sounds all too familiar. (I hope you weren’t the Chief Innovation Officer.)

So what do you do about it?

Here are five ways to make sure that the seeds of ideas you plant grow to produce healthy returns in your company:

1. Make sure you have a balanced innovation portfolio strategy. Treating your ideas like you treat your other investments will create less risk and the right behavior. That’s why you must intentionally invest in every quadrant of innovation — Evolutionary, Differentiation, Revolutionary and Fast Fail.

Innovation Portfolio Diagram
For example, nearly all companies MUST have a large amount of evolutionary ideas in their portfolio because it is a natural result of consistently listening and responding to your consumer. But by investing in the Fast Fail quadrant at the same time, your teams will learn how to quickly test ideas and develop the entrepreneurial mindset that you need to keep your teams from ruining good with perfect.

2. Celebrate failure. Failure is OK as long as you do it quickly, inexpensively and your whole team learns from it. Create fun ways to share this learning along with your successes.

3. Invest in the soil as much as the seeds.

“The boss will never go for that.”

“It’ll cost a million bucks just to open the IT hood.”

“Legal won’t let us do anything.”

These phrases are all indications that your culture may not be ready to innovate. From my experience, many companies have more good ideas than they need. The problem is that they are planting these seeds in soil that is too dry or infertile to grow them. For companies new to innovation, I recommend cross-functional training that runs in tandem with new product innovation projects. I also recommend that you start with some small wins instead of trying to swing for the fences right off the bat. After all, even Jesse Owens walked before he ran.

4. Look for a budget. A budget is like innovation truth serum. If you have one, you’re serious. If you take a job where one doesn’t exist, you’ll soon be unemployed.

5. Hire a CPG Jedi. The further away you are from the customer, e.g., B2B, B2P (Business to Partner), the more you will benefit from the innovation skills that are mastered in consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies. After all, when you have to put a new product on the shelves every quarter, you must learn to master what the consumer really wants, and those desires are changing more quickly every day.

Finally, don’t give up. Just because you tried and failed once doesn’t mean that innovation doesn’t matter. Done right, it is the single best way to make a positive impact on the world, your career and your bottom line.

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