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Tuesday
Aug232011

Three Myths of Innovation

In this world full of noise, we’re conditioned to ignore the little things.  When you think innovation, you may think in terms of big breakthroughs: the personal computer, the electric car, etc.  Using these as a benchmark, you may think that innovation is somehow out of your reach.

You’ve fallen into the first myth of innovation.

Myth #1: It has to be revolutionary to be groundbreaking

You don’t have to start from a blank sheet of paper or think of something that no one else has thought of before.  Innovation can come from making small changes to current ideas that solve specific problems.

Consider the term “overnight success.”  It’s true that innovative companies may achieve notoriety suddenly – after working on their business for years.  The truth is that innovation is an iterative process of solving many smaller problems.  Each small step is attainable, and people may or may not take notice along the way.  But at some point, one small step added to the others will push your product or service into the “breakthrough” category.

Take, for example, everyone’s favorite “innovative” company: Apple.  While the iPod was groundbreaking in the market, it wasn’t all that special from a technological point of view.  Portable music players had existed for decades.  In the 70s, we had transistor radios.  In the 80s, we listened to tapes on our Walkmans.  The 90s brought Diskmans that played CDs.  By 2000, MP3 players existed.  Apple didn’t start from whole cloth to create the iPod.  They took the portable media player and made it a little bit better.  And it changed the industry.

Myth #2: I don’t have innovative ideas

Innovation begins when you acknowledge that things can be better and set an intention to make them so.  If you see problems, you have ideas.  The only difference between a problem and an idea is the language you use to describe it

If you run a company, you already understand your business.  You know your customers.  You know what’s working and what you can make better.  Your problems are the seeds of innovation; you just have to train yourself to look at them differently.

Exercise:  Use the innovation worksheet to capture your ideas.

When Apple entered the MP3 player market, there was a problem: only technophiles bought MP3 players.  The market acknowledged the benefits of the MP3 player –  it was smaller, it could hold more songs, and you didn’t have to carry around CDs.  However, there was a barrier to adoption:  the average user didn’t want the hassle of getting their music onto their computer, maintaining a music library, and figuring out how to get it onto their device.

The market didn’t want a better MP3 player.  It wanted a better way to find and listen to music.

Apple’s solution was iTunes: an easy-to-use piece of software that helped people find music and listen to it.  By switching the focus from technical specs to customer experience, Apple didn’t build a more technologically advanced MP3 player, they created a better way to experience music. 

Myth #3: You have to wait for inspiration to strike

More often than not, inspiration doesn’t happen out of the blue.  You have to go looking for it.  Actively search for opportunities (sometimes disguised in problems) by listening to your customers, your employees, and yourself.  Anytime you want to change something, anytime you are frustrated with something – recognize the frustration as a possible opportunity to innovate.  Write it down.

This is where many people get stuck.  When they can’t see an immediate solution to a problem, they assume it can’t be solved and work around it.

To be innovative, don’t worry about HOW to solve the problem, first envision what could be accomplished if the problem was magically solved.  Would you make money?  How much?  What would the customer experience be like?  What does that mean to your business?

Exercise:  Use the innovation worksheet to capture envisioned outcomes.

Quantifying the outcome gives you a ruler you can use to determine how much energy it is worth to try and solve that problem.  If the opportunity is substantial, it may be worth brainstorming, involving your employees, or hiring a consultant to help you find a way to innovate.

The bottom line is there’s no secret to innovation.  It’s attainable for anybody, and you don’t have to wait for it to happen.  You can chose to make yourself more innovative by implementing a repeatable process in which you acknowledge opportunities and allow yourself to imagine what could be achieved if you realized them.