Thinking the Unthinkable
We can broadly simplify innovations into two kinds – incremental and radical. Incremental innovations are improvements to current products, methods, processes, services, partnerships and so on. Customer complaints and suggestions are a good source of ideas for incremental improvements. So are the people who work in the organization. If you ask customers how your product could be better or if you ask employees how their job could made easier they will come up with plenty of proposals.
Most organizations are good at incremental innovation – they make things better. However, very few organizations are good at radical innovations. As Gary Hamel puts it:
“Businesses are good at getting better but poor at getting different.”
Indeed Clayton Christenson in his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, argues that it is very difficult for successful organizations to develop disruptive innovations that would threaten the basis of their success. Often they are put out of business when some smaller company develops a radically new technology. Which employee working in a booming telecoms company in the 1990s would have suggested that free voice over internet telephony would be something they should develop? It took a start-up, Skype, to make a success of this radical idea.
How can you encourage your people to countenance drastic innovations? One way is to run creativity sessions where the objective is to conceive them. Ask the question, ‘Who killed our business?’
Get small teams to imagine entirely new business models that could deliver the benefits that your customers want. Each team has to present a scenario of a force so powerful that it could completely replace you. Starting with a blank piece of paper and none of the encumbrances that limit your organization they design a super competitor. They are encouraged to go to extremes and to think completely outside the current model. The exercise is stimulating and can be very revealing.
Most organizations have natural defense mechanisms against disruptive or threatening ideas. People immediately find reasons why they should not be considered. It is difficult to change the culture to one where such ideas are not only heard but are actively encouraged and developed. The ‘Who killed our business?’ exercise is a good way to start.
Paul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader and editor of A Guide to Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing, both published by Kogan-Page.