Innovation: A Leap of Faith or Just a Lot of Hard Work?

by Thomas Helfrich, Chief Innovation Officer

Every time I hear the word innovation nowadays, I exercise the deepest emotional eye roll and feel the distinct urge to run toward the closest proverbial cliff. Occasionally, I am pleasantly surprised, but most of the time, the eye roll and cliff-jumping are justified.

There is hardly a more overused word in business circles and in the tech industry today. Akin to my other favorites – synergy, bleeding edge and disruptive – it is used so often and so loosely that it has become nearly hollow. I no longer hear innovation – I hear inno-vacuous. And I’d venture to guess I’m not the only one who hears it this way.

Why does talk of innovation in business today seem like just smoke and mirrors? First of all, we don’t always know what we mean when we say it.

Do we mean innovation as something created from scratch – a new “thing” that didn’t exist before – the impossible that has become possible, the next disruptive technology that changes the way we live and work? If so, this kind of modern-day innovation is rare indeed: Tesla, Amazon, Facebook, Google. And thinking of innovation in this way conflates it with invention – not what most business leaders are purporting to do even in their most inspired moments.

According to Wikipedia, innovation is simply a "new idea, device or method." But where do new ideas, devices and methods come from? And how do business leaders create an environment that churns out more of them?

In my experience, the word innovation in business contexts has defied definition because it’s a lot less sexy than business leaders would have you believe. And shame on them. Even if we can define the word innovation doesn’t mean we know how to do it.

What if innovation looked like asking questions? In my world, this would look like questioning what we know about technology and services, questioning how an organization works, questioning the way a team thinks about strategy. Consider Tesla. Many think the company’s innovation is its electric car, but in reality, its biggest innovation may come from the way it questions the traditional automobile industry, taking customer reservations ahead of production, eschewing traditional advertising, selling directly to consumers.

Perhaps we should think of innovation in terms of physics. You have to set things in motion; create acceleration. You have to build an environment where things, people, products, and ideas can collide. Introduce new feedback channels. Take apart your deepest assumptions about a thing and see what it’s made of. In reality, innovation is messy – and most of the time – it looks more like a series of quantum interactions rather than the big bang.

Most enterprise leaders believe their organization is innovative – or at least they say it is. But creating an environment that produces new ideas and creative solutions is a matter of being willing to take the risk and then rolling up your sleeves. Here are five essential elements:

  • Leadership. You need leaders who bend – but do not break – the organization to a new state. You need leaders who give you permission to unsettle things in a constructive way, to push the comfort zone and take risks – leaders who question the status quo and make the investments needed to support change. In some c-suite arrangements, one person serves as the “change addict” and another serves as the “change dealer,” offering up opportunity after opportunity to keep new ideas and creative solutions in the offing. Establishing roles like this – even with a healthier metaphor – will push the whole organization to higher ground.
  • Hard questions. Actively question the assumptions you think you know about a problem or situation. Boil it down to its most basic truths and then rethink each part of the process. Beware conventions or inherited ways of doing things. Ask people why they are doing things the way they are. Take a hard look at the fundamentals to allow whole new solutions will emerge.
  • Trust. Ironically, it’s in environments where risk-taking is encouraged that trust is most essential. Be open about the situation, the impact of change and the resolution so people can stay engaged. Change agents must work constantly to move the agenda forward, keep the energy positive and get people “hooked” on new ways of thinking. Remember that most good ideas come along with bad ones, so encourage them all and evaluate later.
  • A healthy ecosystem. Take care of the enterprise ecosystem, amend the soil, clear the air, and understand what it takes to grow something new. If only one person in an organization has an idea, it is likely to die. That person must be able to tap an established system of both internal and external partners that can recognize a spark of energy and provide the nutrients to keep a new idea alive. Create teams of diverse sets of people who are willing to adapt and evolve. Encouraging growth and change may require weeding out individuals, processes, and practices that are not adding value or not willing to change. Unfortunately, this may mean some of the oldest and most established weeds will need to be pulled out at the roots.
  • Entrepreneurship. Be prepared to get down to brass tacks. Know what it’s going to cost to care for a new idea. How much water does it need? How long will it need this level of care? What are the benefits and impacts? Without this kind of care-giving – and the hellbent-on-success spirit of an entrepreneur – even the best ideas remain abstract and hypothetical. The seed is important, but so are the support mechanisms – and determination – that make it come to life.

The truth is, most of us are not going to come up with a new product that will change the way we live. Invention is not our gift to the world. Every time I think of an idea, Google is quick to show me that 4,000 other people have already thought of it. But hard work may be our gift. Strong business leaders constantly ask what their teams are truly capable of. What kind of energy can we produce if we collide our ideas with reality, with a timeframe, with a demanding market? What happens when we think in new ways about old products and services? When we create new partnerships? Introduce teams to a new goal?

The next time you hear the word innovation, don’t run for the cliff. Create a collision that sparks new energy. Challenge your people and partners in their approach and way of thinking. Or – now that I think of it – maybe it’s that proverbial cliff we should be running toward … the cliff of capability and possibility, the proximity to the clouds. Maybe taking a leap of faith off that cliff is exactly what innovation is.

Interested in learning more about how CAI can help your organization put the pieces in place to drive meaningful, sustainable innovation? Get in touch