Innovators – Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

Innovators - Stand on the Shoulders of GiantsI had a nice meeting the other day in Johannesburg with an individual I met through Twitter. We talked about our shared interest in innovation. When I queried him about how he became interested in innovation, he told me that he started out in his company’s process improvement team, and innovation just seemed like the next logical step. Innovation, in his eyes, built from incremental changes to ever increasing radical or disruptive ideas. This discussion led me to think about the advantages of starting innovation late.

Innovation, like any other science or capability, is evolving. In the example above, many organizations start innovation based on incremental changes, which spawn new ideas about bigger and riskier change. Further, many organizations start innovation activities by querying their employee base and asking for ideas. As the innovation activity matures, these firms realize that open suggestion systems often don’t provide the insight and value desired, so they shift to what we call “directed” innovation – asking for ideas about a specific problem or need. So you can see evolution and learning at work in real time. The evolution involved in the shift from incremental ideas to radical or disruptive ideas, and the shift in focus from suggestion systems to directed innovation.

What’s interesting is that many firms follow these paths, starting with incremental suggestion systems and slowing discovering that more formal directed systems are more practical. What I don’t understand is why so many firms fail to understand the best practices and learning that exist. Why recreate the wheel when the evidence is available in the marketplace? Most firms starting innovation activities today should build from years of experience available in the marketplace, and should “leapfrog” generations of innovation activity, skipping over the less valuable suggestion systems about incremental ideas to a more formal innovation activity addressing specific company strategic needs. In the same way that we see many countries using advanced wireless telephony to overcome missing or outdated landline service, we should see new innovation entrants capitalizing on existing innovation knowledge and best practice. These firms should be leveraging the benefits of prior experience and scaling the learning curve much more quickly than the firms that preceded them. Yet in many cases this doesn’t happen. Why this is the case is a head scratcher for me.

Plenty of best practice is documented for innovation. Hundreds if not thousands of innovation experts, consultants and practitioners exist. Thousands of books are written about innovation. Innovation conferences and training programs abound (cough, cough). It’s not as though the best practice doesn’t exist – its as if people willfully ignore it or don’t seek it out. There are only a couple of plausible explanations for this behavior:

Innovators - Stand on the Shoulders of Giants1. People don’t believe there is such a thing as innovation “best practice”

2. People believe they must take every step in the evolutionary journey in order to be innovative

3. People don’t want to take the time to learn the best practices and dive in at the shallow end of the pool

4. People don’t believe innovation will have a long life in their organization, so understanding the best practices isn’t worth the time

5. Innovation isn’t expected to have a big impact – it is for “show” rather than having an impact, so any activity is valid

To paraphrase Dean Wormer in Animal House, cynical, uninformed and unmotivated is no way to go through innovation. Anyone in any firm can learn what works and what is valuable in innovation, and leapfrog the early inefficient activities to move onward to more effective innovation. The reasons I’ve listed above reflect a lack of investigation, a lack of emphasis and time, a cynical attempt to quickly deliver some “innovation” regardless of outcome. What other reasons could exist for a failure to fully understand what’s successful, and what isn’t, in innovation.

Here’s an analogy to prove my point. I recently led a workshop on open innovation with several dozen people who claim to be active in innovation, who have a stated interest in open innovation. When we examined some of the different styles of open innovation, I recommended that they look at IdeaStorm, Dell’s open innovation portal. When asked, only 2 of over 30 people were even aware of Dell’s IdeaStorm, perhaps the most public open innovation activity, in a room full of people who want to do more open innovation. Why would a room full of self-selected innovators, many of whom use Dell products, be unaware of what is perhaps the most widely touted open innovation platform? Is it a lack of interest? Clearly not.  Is it a lack of research? Perhaps. Is it a failure to understand that they can learn from what firms that are further ahead have done? I really don’t know. Our thinking about open innovation is freely available on this Slideshare presentation.

But I do know that firms that understand that innovation is an evolutionary activity can learn from those that have gone before, and leapfrog to a more robust innovation platform. As Newton said, if I have seen further it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants. There are innovation giants on whose shoulders you can stand, if you care to find them.

image credit: biztrends & wholesalers

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey 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

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