Innovation: We Know It When We See It

iPod (Photo by Andrew*)

Quick – think of an innovative product.

Good. Now think of an innovative service.

What popped into your head? I thought of the iPod and Netflix.

On Tuesday I sat in on a summit called The State of Innovation: Moving Beyond Boardroom and Lab, hosted by Seed Magazine and the Council on Competitiveness. The participants included Chad Holliday, former CEO of DuPont, biologist and writer E.O. Wilson, and digerati leader and investor Esther Dyson, among many other luminaries.

Wilson delighted the summit attendees with his insight on why being innovative is so darned hard. “We have Star Wars vision, Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and God-like technologies,” he said.

Everyone who spoke had a slightly different take on innovation, as the wide-ranging conversations made clear. Here is the definition that I synthesized:

An innovative product or service is one that uses “outside the box thinking” to create something that solves a problem for its user, and has the potential to reach a broader audience or application than early imaginings would indicate. The iPod is innovative, the Segway is probably not innovative, by this definition. The safety razor and computer chip were innovative; the lava lamp was not innovative.

And innovation, then, is whatever it is that people and institutions do to obtain innovative results.

However you define innovation, the summit speakers feel that the U.S. needs more of it. Here are some of their ideas of how to ramp up the innovation factory.

Large, science-driven organizations need innovation brokers – people who can put together a market need with an innovation. That lets scientists be scientists but makes sure that good ideas find a home.

Innovation is a people-driven, rather than headquarters-driven phenomenon. That said, leaders must set the tone by showing that innovative thinking will be rewarded, and that failures are part of the process.

History shows us that innovation comes in spurts, and that makes it hard to predict. In the long run, companies with strong patents are the most successful

Innovative materials will be smart materials. They will be able to adapt to their environment. Some examples are building materials that absorb heat during the day, and release it at night, or breathable glass that can regulate air exchange.

Individuals can be innovative, but very often innovation happens in collaborations and interdisciplinary teams. In fact, without a team of people with diverse skills, it is very difficult for an innovation – no matter how useful – to reach an audience. Innovation should not be the responsibility of just one leader or team in an organization.

The generation that has grown up with Facebook and Twitter are already “trained” in collaboration. Institutions should take advantage of their ability while guarding against a clash of cultures.

Innovation can be helped along by a strong dose of “design thinking.” Designers have a different set of problem-solving skills than business people have. They are trained to start with deep user research, and they work through fast iterations (now often using rapid prototyping technologies) to find solutions that really fit. Designers should have an early place at the table with marketing managers, technologists, and manufacturing experts.

What does your organization do to foster innovation? Does it work?

Photo by Andrew*

Author: Melody Bomgardner

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1 Comment

  1. “You’ll know you’re being innovative if you feel uncomfortable.”

    That’s the best advice on the subject of innovation I ever got. It came from a talk given at an innovation symposium held by a company at which I did a summer internship. Most speakers said something along the lines of “think outside the box”, which when you really think about it is nothing more than useless tautology.

    But one scientist offered the advice above. Now that’s useful.

    It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that every single product we think of today as being innovative started out as a piece of junk almost nobody cared about. Stuff that ‘experts’ in the field said could never work. Stuff that no serious person (or company) would ever waste time or money with.

    The iPod entered a market with several of other digital music players and was not expected by most tech observers to do very well. Netflix is an innovative service – but if so, why didn’t Blockbuster develop it instead? In both cases it’s a mistake to confuse what now exists with what existed when the respective products were launched.

    Now, just because you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean you’re being innovative. You could be doing something merely stupid or criminal instead.

    But if what you’re now working on is widely-regarded as the ‘correct’ approach, you’ve either made it through the period of being uncomfortable with your innovative idea and others are starting to come around (congratulations!), or you’re not being very innovative.