Innovation is one of the most used and abused term these days. But what exactly it means can be quite nebulous. Moreover, when we talk about innovation, it can mean different things to different people.
For some, words such as original, unexpected, fresh, never been seen before or thought before, creative, new, useful, etc., come to mind.
For others, it means challenging conventional notions of how things are done, bringing ideas from one industry to another, or from one geographic region to another.
We are trying to create meaningful points of difference for our products or services from current alternatives.
Although, it does not have to be always a product or service differentiation. It can also be about processing, delivering, or managing.
However, one key issue I have often seen is that most people think innovation and creativity interchangeably. Unfortunately, it is only partly true. If I put it in a formulaic manner, it will be “innovation = creativity + delivery.” While creativity can be easy, delivery is where the challenges pop up the most. That is where the journey of idea to reality starts to falter.
Innovation = Creativity + Delivery
There is more to creativity
Sometimes, it just takes one idea to solve a big problem. But being creative and producing new or different ideas is easy, especially if we compare that against being innovative and bringing ideas to life. Because innovation needs a lot more than just a bunch of ideas, only having ideas without doing anything with them is a total waste.
Being innovative means bringing ideas to life, scaling them up so more people can benefit. It also means whatever you want to create must be useful, not just to one, two, or a few, but to many people. You must be able to produce or implement it at scale. And that needs a few additional steps.
During my days at KNEWRON Technologies, our customers always had ideas for implementing them. Most people thought that ideas to reality are a simple three-stage activity – Develop MVP – Trial the products – Launch it.
However, this is an oversimplified process only meant for easy conversations. In reality, much of the work goes behind that.
The first and crucial step
For me, every idea must begin with a problem to solve or fix. In fact, it will be much better if you are thinking about transforming the problem instead of just solving it. This is the first and the most crucial step.
Crucial because you may have seen hundreds of companies floating around with their (so-called) solution in their hands, trying to find problems it solves. It is not only a serious waste of time, but it also can limit the long-term sustainability of that business. How many firms or startups can you recall that existed five years ago with innovative ideas. Most of them would be gone by now, simply because they could not find product-market fit.
On the contrary to finding product-market fit, we must look at it as market-product fit and develop what market or customer needs or wants. A few handfuls of projects that I worked on at KNEWRON followed this philosophy and were successful.
Of course, doing that, i.e., finding the right problem to solve, needs an empathetic approach towards your customers. If you cannot see, feel, or understand their problem, you are least likely to translate it correctly. This also means that someone else will do it someday and put you out of business if you do not do it.
Moreover, producing better ideas does not happen in silos. You need deeper insights. Developing insights is not easy, particularly when you do not know much about the industry, that domain, or the process where problems occur. So, in this first step, you need genuine curiosity and empathy to identify what is required. Why the problem exists in the first place, and what is the root cause.
Be curious and empathetic. Find out the root cause of the problem you want to solve.
Time to get creative
Once you find the problem and its root cause, you can think about many ways to solve it. However, you will need to generate multiple ideas for doing that effectively.
This is the second step in the innovation process. The idea generation becomes easier if you know why that problem exists in the first place. Because whenever you fix the root cause, problems disappear. Eliminating the root cause is the best way to solve any problem.
Generate as many ideas as possible before you begin to judge them.
Here is a catch, though. To produce enough meaningful and clever ideas, you need creativity. But additionally, you also need experience. Without enough experience, you cannot produce enough innovative ideas.
However, there is an antidote. It is to collaborate with other experts in various relevant domains and combine their knowledge with your creativity. This is the best way to move forward when time is of the essence.
Another way to circumvent the limitation of experience is experimentation. Many people mistake experimentation with trial and error. It is not. It is an art. And it is also science. Experimentation teaches you so many things in a brief period that otherwise will take several years to learn.
Based on your experimental findings, observations, etc., generate as many ideas as possible. However, do not judge them in this stage yet.
We all agree that every idea is not and cannot be equally good. Some ideas are outright pointless. Some ideas are good but may not be feasible or viable from a business standpoint. Sometimes, everything is good, except that the timing is not right.
So, the third step is to apply critical thinking and analyze all your ideas for their usefulness, feasibility, and relevance. Then, pick the most suitable one that makes more sense at the current stage. Also, consider it because you can develop it further reasonably if needed.
Apply critical thinking and analyze your ideas for their usefulness, feasibility, viability, and relevance.
Shaping it beyond just an idea
Picking one idea is just the beginning. It needs to be developed and shaped further to commercialize and implement it at scale. This is where the fourth step of validation comes into play.
It is unlikely that you will validate your idea all by yourself in most cases. You will need help. You will have to collaborate with multiple people and experts to ensure your idea improves and becomes more robust.
During my time with KNEWRON, I came across hundreds of fantastic ideas. Only a handful of them was scalable or implementable. People who had those ideas often knew what they wanted and what they were doing.
Firsthand experience is underrated these days but having it or not having it shows up vividly at this stage. This means the key is to get people with good and diverse experiences involved early in the process. This can save you time and money eventually.
Validate your chosen idea and develop it further for all practical purposes.
It can go nowhere without communication
You might think that production and distribution are logical steps after the development. But before that, there is one crucial step remaining. In fact, it is one of those steps which make people cringe and ask road-blocking questions, “Why are we doing this?”
No matter how good your idea or the solution is, you need to sell it. Not just to the customers but all the stakeholders involved in the supply chain and the process. Simply because without their help and buy-in, the implementation, production, processing, and delivery will stifle.
Communication is not just about selling. It is also about articulating your idea. How and why you developed it. How your solution fits in your customers’ lives. It helps you make sure that more people can understand it and benefit from it.
What is the point of innovation if others cannot understand it, right?
Communicate your work. Articulate the problem, its root cause, and how your developed idea solves it.
The point is
Innovation requires more than just a bunch of ideas or creativity. It needs discipline. It needs a process to follow.
If you are implementing innovation programs in your organization, want to be more innovative, or simply want to streamline it, this is where you can start. Establishing a high-level process that people can understand and follow is the key to their participation. A mere suggestion box or idea competition will not take you anywhere. It is an old-school approach.
‘Being innovative’ means you need to think forward and find new ways of doing things, for your own and for your people’s sake.
Now is the time to find some problems to solve, follow the process, and make your ideas a reality!
Innovation requires more than just a bunch of ideas. It needs discipline. It needs a process to follow!