Over the past two years I’ve interviewed over 100 innovation leaders at large organizations about how they are learning and doing innovation for themselves and helping others in their organization to innovate. A major theme was learning and developing innovation skills through working on real innovation projects. Quite simply, you learn innovation through doing it (and reflecting on it)…and then doing it again and again incorporating what you are learning. This is moving beyond just reading or thinking about innovation or discussing it…but actually launching the ideas for innovations into reality. Three of the most popular approaches the leaders I interviewed use and help others to use are:
- Design thinking
- Lean startup
You can up your own innovation learning and skill development in an intentional way through initiating an innovation project. You can also help those newer to innovation to learn in a practical project-based way. For smaller innovation projects I work on and teach others to start, I frame this with three stages: Challenge – Ideas – Action. For bigger projects, I use the 7 steps I’ve outlined in the book Innovation Step-by-Step: How to Create and Develop Ideas for your Challenge. The steps are summarized below. Follow along with an innovation challenge (problem or opportunity) you’d like to work on…ideally one that is validated and important to your customers, users, or stakeholders.
Begin with reflecting on an innovation project you could start for the purpose of learning and creating value through innovation. With that in mind, let’s look at this seven-step process to innovate step-by-step and learn and develop our skill while engaged in doing it.
- Clarify the Innovation Challenge – What problem do we want to solve? Who do we want to help? Why and how? Don’t just think about yourself, but also about those you’re trying to help.
- Focus with Specific Questions – Before generating ideas, focus on directions you could go. Ask increasingly specific questions that could take you in a more specific direction you could go for finding ideas or solutions.
- Generate Ideas – This part is fun, but we don’t start here. Generate many ideas. Not just one, how about 100 ideas? Many of your ideas may not be great, but some may be. Plus, they are raw materials you will build from. Also, you don’t have to do all of the idea generating yourself. Get help from others and find ideas too.
- Analyze & Synthesize Ideas – If you just have one idea, you can’t do this step. If you have a lot of ideas, you can. You need to find the common themes and figure out which ideas make sense to move forward based on simple criteria for success.
- Develop Concepts – Take the best ideas and themes from the last step, and detail them out a bit more. Make each concept a value proposition. Remember, it’s about getting increasingly specific. Develop concepts from your raw ideas by adding more elaboration such as who the idea is for, the problem it solves, features/benefits, how it might work, etc.
- Test & Select Concepts – You may end up with a lot of ideas, but you can’t act on all of them. So test the best concepts out to help you decide which ideas you wish to move forward. Do you have any evidence to support any of your specific ideas? Is there any indication that any in particular could be valuable to your stakeholders? Can you show them to your stakeholders and have them help you validate and select which concepts to take action on?
- Communicate & Advance – This one is tricky, because you need to push forward and communicate your innovation to others. Many are afraid to go more public with their ideas, even internally in their organizations. You may have done a lot of work, but you may hesitate to actually put it out there into the world. You’ve gotten this far, and now it’s time to actually launch and advance your innovation. It may not work the way you intended, but you need to take action to keep learning and provide more value to those you are designing for. Your ideas and innovations will benefit from this step, even if it’s messy.
Repeat the process to keep iterating on your innovation project. Reflect and incorporate what you learned to keep looping back into better innovation action and skill development.
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Darin Eich, Ph.D. is the author of Innovation Step-by-Step: How to Create & Develop Ideas for your Challenge & Root Down & Branch Out: Best Practices for Leadership Development Programs. He is a global innovation training workshop designer and keynote speaker as the founder of Innovation Learning. Darin designs programs used by over 1 million people that have been featured in USA TODAY and offered by the University of Wisconsin and Dartmouth College. He got started in innovation consulting as the president of BrainReactions where he led ideation projects for organizations like P&G & the UN.