Innovate or get lost in the dust

“But the bottom line is that innovation is not optional, and it cannot be put off until a crisis looms. To paraphrase Peter Drucker, asking ‘When is the right time to innovate?’ is the wrong question. Innovation must be a constant.” — Tom Koulopoulos, president and founder, The Delphi Group

Our incredibly fast-paced world is demanding that we constantly do more, better, and faster, always with fewer resources, and the pressure of this business reality is not going to lighten up. In fact, you can count on it getting worse. The speed of change today is almost exponential when compared to the past. The world’s knowledge used to double every century. Now, it’s every month. Crazy.

So, what to do? There are really two areas for innovation: continuous improvement and breakthrough leaps. Continuous improvement or kaizen is the process of constantly making it — the process, the system, the product, etc. — better. That is why someone in Cupertino, Calif., is working on the iPhone 8 (or perhaps more likely 9 or 10) right now. Always the next version, and always better than the last.

On the other hand, when the first iPhone came out, it was a BREAKTHROUGH product — a completely new way of communicating with bells and whistles that had not existed in any previous cellphone.

Whether it is incremental improvement or a breakthrough new idea, it is mission critical to go into the brainstorming process with an open mind. Before you tell yourself that yours is open and ready for new ideas, a study by NASA could prove revealing. The study focused on “creative effort” by age group. It was found that 5 year olds had 98% creative effort. Twenty year olds were at 5% and the average NASA Ph.D. was at 3%. It makes you wonder why we hear more about innovations by SpaceX than NASA today.

Two things come into play here. The first is that age-old definition of insanity: “To do the same thing the same way and expect a different result.” The other is that the more time we have invested in a certain way of doing things, the less likely we are open to changing.

The other perspective is knowing when to turn on the green lights and red lights in any brainstorming or innovation session. The unfortunate habit (reluctance to change) is that many like to turn on the red lights way too soon. There is no question that judicial, thoughtful questions need to be asked when discussing new approaches. However, do not start there! Start with a vision of what that perfect solution could be. Get into the guts of that vision. Can you imagine the excitement and energy and what it was like when Apple’s iPhone team was in the “What if it had …” mode? In this green-light start, there is no such thing as a bad idea. You go after quantity of ideas in a totally nonjudgmental way. It is only when the floodgates of ideas are open that you can get everything on the table.



Once you get there, then (and only then) red-light thinking and quality should become the focus. If you start with red-light thinking, you are not going to make much, if any, progress. See if these phrases sound familiar:

  • We tried that before.
  • We’re not ready for that.
  • We don’t have the time.
  • It won’t work in our plant.
  • It’s not in the budget.
  • The supervisors will scream.

In conclusion, the above is just a first taste of the full, structured innovation process. The critical factor is to always start with the green lights on to set the process in motion.

“In what ways can we …”

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