Technology innovation is a goal for many companies. It’s a worthy goal, because innovation—whether disruptive or incremental—can create new product lines and unlock new revenue centers.
But while many companies want to pursue technology innovation, just as many end up stymieing innovation by approaching it with the wrong mindset.
While these mindsets aren’t malicious, they can destroy the atmosphere innovation needs in order to thrive. So it’s vital for everyone in a company to be aware of the innovation stoppers that exist. To that end, here are six keys that everyone in a company pursuing innovation needs to remember before and during an innovation initiative.
Key #1: The path of innovation goes through the land of uncertainty
If you are to reap the benefits of innovation, you will inevitably encounter at least one point where you are uncertain about the success of your idea. If you’re not willing to embrace this uncertainty, then you likely won’t reap the benefits of innovation.
Many organizations avoid uncertainty with risk management in mind. That mindset may keep you on the straight and narrow, but it won’t get you to truly disruptive territory. You need to run the risk of not knowing what’s going to happen in order to reap the benefits of innovation.
Key #2: Know what you can risk, and then risk it
Of course, your business can’t risk everything for innovation. So as you embrace uncertainty, it’s important to know exactly what you are prepared to risk. How much money? How many FTE equivalents? How much executive bandwidth?
By answering the questions before you start the innovation process, you set clear expectations about what’s on the table, and what ideas are too big for your company. That provides a valuable filter for ideas, while giving your innovation team the freedom to pursue ideas that fit the risk profile.
There’s an unspoken key here, of course. Once you decide what to risk, stick to that decision. Don’t cut the budget halfway through. Remember that your company made an intentional decision about what it would put on the line to achieve innovation, and stick to that decision if at all possible.
Key #3: Criticism can kill momentum
When your company begins an innovation project, it’s important for everyone involved to keep a positive attitude about the ideas being developed. This is especially true for C-level execs or other managers who decide to just “check in” on a project.
The reason for this is that criticism stifles ideas. Innovation needs to start in a bubble, where half-formed ideas and even bad ideas are allowed to live for a while to see if they can inspire something bigger and better. The reason that creative types enforce brainstorming rules that prohibit negative feedback at certain points is that criticism doesn’t just kill one idea—it kills potential ideas that idea could inspire. In fact, sometimes the worst idea has value because it helps someone think of the best idea.
Of course, truly innovative ideas will eventually have to pass critical tests and stand up to questioning. But this should happen after the ideas have been developed, not while they’re in their infancy.
Key #4: Form the idea, then figure out how to measure
Just as criticism can kill an idea that is still under development, overanalyzing the idea can as well. Paralysis by analysis is a real hazard when it comes to innovation.
Here at Worthwhile, we believe that any project we build needs to produce ROI. We recommend that our clients look for at least three dollars for every dollar they spend. We hold ourselves to this standard while we’re building business cases for software projects and other technology innovations.
But it’s important to know when to do these ROI calculations. Forcing an idea to justify measurable returns before it is fully formed will more than likely kill the idea.
This means you need to provide a time to form the idea before you try to measure it. By establishing a set amount of time for innovation to percolate, you give the idea a better change to actually chance to succeed in a measurable way.
Key #5: Don’t focus on old means to reach a new end
Innovation will likely never happen if you keep doing the same old things you have always done. The old ways of doing business will have to change if you are to gain the benefits of innovation.
So while your business may have strong standard operating procedures, and while your industry may have established best practices, you will need to think and act outside the box in order to be truly innovative. That’s because things like expertise and SOPs and best practices tend to be based on what has worked in the past, not on what will work in the future. You will need to find new tools in order to achieve innovative gains.
What are those tools? It depends on your situation. Maybe design thinking will help you imagine a disruptive new product. Maybe scrum methodology will help you advance your technology to new places and new areas. Maybe you need rapid prototype to test, discard, and re-create ideas. Or maybe it’s another tool. Whatever it is, look around and find the new tools and new processes that will help you capture new, innovative ground, and learn how to use them.
Key #6: Admit what you don’t know (and that’s almost everything)
Innovation projects are an area where everyone in the organization, from leadership to new hires, needs to admit that he or she doesn’t know the right answer. People may have opinions based on their expertise, or on their intuition, but the truth is that no one knows what the true answer to any innovation project might be.
So as you enter an innovation project, admit what you don’t know. Hold loosely to your opinions, and make sure that the way you express them comes across as suggestion instead of as feedback that must be acted on.
This is especially important if you’re in a management or leadership position, because your words carry great weight. Don’t put that weight behind an opinion about something on which you are uncertain. Use your words carefully, and choose carefully when to use them.
Innovation is valuable, so it’s no surprise that it’s hard to do. You have to have the right mindset in order to navigate the choppy waters and succeed with your innovative idea.
When you get in the right frame of mind, then you open the possibilities of achieving success through innovation. Remember these six keys, and you’ll start moving down the right track.