There are a number of old, tired sayings that actually create a tremendous amount of insight when considered in a new light. Perhaps no phrase is as hackneyed as “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” While probably true, the phrase has been overused and misused. However, I think considering this phrase in a slightly different context could shed new light on a subject near and dear to my heart – innovation.
After leading several idea generation sessions for clients recently, several concepts that had been at the edges of my vision but now came into view with startling clarity. Most of my clients think what we do for them is to help them create ideas, but I think what’s more important, and often completely missed, are the tools and methods we offer to help clients move out of their comfort zones and into creative zones. In other words, while the ideas seem important, its the process, the tools and the attitude shift that is really valuable. Or, put another way, “give a team an idea, and they’ll innovate in the short run. Give them the tools and the time, and they’ll innovate forever.”
Given the attitudes and focus of many management teams, however, there are two barriers to that thinking. First, idea generation sessions must immediately return a result – preferably one, or several, ideas that are so compelling the firm can immediately implement them for profit. These expectations exist even though these same firms have neglected innovation and idea generation for months. Somehow a team brought together at the spur of the moment, using unfamiliar tools and with uncertain goals, is often expected to produce a miracle, what I like to call Immaculate Innovation.
Further, given the constraints on budgets, resources and funds, innovation must happen very quickly. Learning a process that can be repeated later is less valuable than producing a result quickly. It is this combination of short time horizons and expectations of immediate returns that result far too often in incremental innovation that is eventually yawned off the shelves by customers. This, in turn, creates a vicious cycle of ever increasing demands for new ideas in ever decreasing timeframes, ratcheting up expectations because of unmet needs.
Increasingly, I find ideation sessions evolving into idea production sessions – with the clients turning hopeful eyes to the consultants, hoping that we have ideas that will create the next radical product or service. This is the “give a team an idea” approach. In some regards, this isn’t necessarily a poor alternative, since idea generators and creativity consultants are free from the expectations and biases that our customers live with each day. We are free to suggest outlandish ideas that don’t conform to corporate capabilities or strategies. However, if you desire a great idea from a third party consultant, you must immerse that individual in the capabilities of the firm, the competition in the marketplace, the emerging trends, the expectations of the customer base and much more, then be willing to implement the ideas the consultant creates.
Simply accepting ideas from consultants solves a short-term problem but doesn’t address the challenge of product or service development. Even if a consultant generates a perfect idea, so beautiful in creation and so aligned to customer needs that the skies part and angels descend, that idea still must be developed as a new product or service, launched in the marketplace and supported by your organization. This means you need both the Immaculate Conception combined with a miraculous Commercialization. Simply having a great idea is not enough – the provenance doesn’t matter if you can’t get it to market.
Innovation success doesn’t come to the most insightful, or the most committed, or the most desperate. It doesn’t come to those with the deepest pockets, the wisest managers or the best marketers. Innovation success comes to those who:
- stake out a vision,
- encourage creativity internally and
- partner well externally, and
- develop a mechanism to convert excellent ideas, regardless of source or scope, into vital new products.
Whether those ideas come from experienced internal employees who understand the tools and techniques of idea generation, or from consultants well versed in the needs of the marketplace, or from a web of customers, business partners, research universities or other sources, ideas, like the fish in the proverb, are merely the outcome. Teaching a team to innovate and allowing them to innovate over time is, like teaching a man to fish, transferring skills and knowledge which is inculcated and reused. And that’s the real value innovation can bring.
The real question you should ask your executives, and your team, is: what is the appropriate role for innovation in our organization? Should ideas be generated internally or externally? If internally, what are the important skills, methods and cultural attitudes to accelerate the capability? How do we acquire and constantly use those skills? If externally, who do we trust to do this with us? And, most importantly, regardless of the source of the ideas – the Immaculate Conception – what is our capability to convert ideas into valuable products and services that exceed customer needs – the miraculous commercialization.
Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.