Many businesses identify innovation as a strategic concern, but struggle to take the first step in addressing it successfully. In fact, a survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicates that Australia is in the clutches of an innovation drought when it comes to creativity in business, with less than half (42.2%) of Australia’s 770,000 businesses engaging in some form of innovative activity.
Organisations often struggle to pin down what innovation means and how it can be fostered. In my opinion, innovation has one important feature that is distinguishable from other research and development practices: innovation is emergent. An innovative concept is not just the sum of its parts.
Innovation is simple, but not straightforward
To highlight the difference between a good idea and innovation, I’d like you to consider the most useful apparatus for the large garden: the mower-vac. You probably have a lawn mower, and perhaps you also have a separate vacuum for leaves and trimmings. Thus, combining the two and creating mower-vac is undeniably smart design thinking, however, I do not see it as a compelling innovation.
On the other hand, something like the rightly famous Dyson bladeless fan is a great example of innovation. The jump from a centuries old principle of blades circulating to propel air to something completely new yet more functional is a design revolution.
There are two simple approaches to help you move forward while embracing innovation.
The first is to challenge the regular habits of your business head-on. As a thought-experiment, turn your model of how the world works completely upside down, and see what interesting ideas fall out of its pockets.
To take a trivial example, consider the humble toothpaste tube. When I was a child, my famiy and I had regular rows regarding who had squeezed the tube from the middle; a faux pas if we’d ever heard one. Getting the most out of the tube was a minor obsession. We even read rumors that one member of the British royal family had a valet squeeze out the toothpaste for him.
To solve the surprisingly aggravating problem of the squished middle, manufacturers simply turned the problem upside down. Tubes are now made out of flexible plastic and stand on their caps, allowing gravity to take the place of Jeeves.
A more widely relevant example is how pricing has developed in the software business. In the 1980s and 1990s, rather than getting bogged down in expensive and complex licensing agreements, some groups turned software pricing on its head and started to give their software away for free. At the time industry analysts thought it little more than a gimmick, however in the new century it is quite commercially viable to offer software at no cost, and instead charge for support, servicing and consulting.
From sweet spot to blind spot
The free software example brings me to the second important method for the innovator: to reconcile opposites.
In business software, we used to talk about providing managers with an ‘information sweet spot.’ Our aim was to deliver the right data in the right format at the right time, with the perception that better decisions would ensue.
As a result developers cleaned and structured data, which clarified ambiguities, removed supposed errors, and narrowed the scope to just the problem in hand.
In terms of technology and technique, ‘Business Intelligence,’ as we called it, was a great success. Almost every major company deployed dashboards and analytics to hit the information sweet spot and improve their decision support.
However, this technical success had a bitter side effect; every sweet spot created a blind spot. By focusing executive's data and attention too closely on the problem in hand, we reduced their peripheral vision and situational awareness.
Like it or not, the world is ambiguous and full of errors, and issues outside of our immediate concern affect us greatly. For instance, duplicate credit card swipes – when a customer tries to complete a sale by using multiple cards until one works – may cause errors in the sales system, yet be useful indicators for fraud detection. Similarly, a contract signed just after the end of the month may not be in the quarterly report, but management still needs to know about them.
From support to discovery
The answer to this dilemma – the reconciliation of opposites – comes with a new generation of innovative software often described as Data Discovery. Where Business Intelligence harnessed high-powered back-office databases to focused specific data to support your decisions, Data Discovery takes advantage of advances in desktop software to enable executives to explore and discover, including areas in their peripheral vision.
Data Discovery can still conceal the sweet spot, but by giving up some centralised control, users can turn their heads and see past the blind spot too.
You will not find innovation easy; it takes commitment and some courage. In fact, frequent failures characterise many a truly innovative project. However, innovation is a skill that can be learned and practiced. If you start turning your conventional ideas on their heads and keep an open mind, you will be surprised by what you come up with.