If someone decides they want to lose weight they have myriad choices for assistance. There are countless service providers who can do anything from deliver healthy meals, sell them exercise equipment, be their personal trainer, or supply an app to chart their progress or a gym membership to work off excess kilos.

All this choice is supposed to optimise a person’s ability to lose weight. But even the optimum conditions frequently don’t work. Two things become more important than any external input: that person’s ability to (1) start, and to (2) keep going when challenged by their day-to-day life. It’s the same with innovation.

Innovation is an aerobic activity. The innovation training, the facilitated innovation process to generate ideas, the ‘creative spaces’ in the workplaces are all of secondary benefit to actually starting something that is intended for launch and then gets launched, even amid the increasing daily challenges of operating an organisation.

Companies think training people, giving them tools and methodologies, getting them in a room to put ideas, first on post-it notes and then on walls, will drive innovation. It doesn’t. What drives innovation is a small team that starts ‘doing’ activities that will lead to a new product, service or business model being launched into the market and, in this way, learning to garner revenue from new or existing customers.

When Airbnb started, it made lots of mistakes, but it was always doing, testing and trying new things – directly with customers. At first, it tried focusing on national events for accommodation (for example, the US election roadshows); then insisting on airbeds (air mattresses) being used; and limiting listings to part-homes only. All the while, it was learning and iterating its business model to see what brought in more users and revenue.

Three mistakes we often make in setting up for more innovation in existing organisations are:

  1. Setting up a centralised process

    (think idea submissions for review)

  2. Asking everyone to be more innovative

    and ‘fit it into their existing work’

  3. Only considering beneficial innovation

    (as opposed to disruptive innovation)

Decentralised innovation drives ownership for innovation deeper within the organisation but more importantly taps into people’s passion and belief in the changes they are working on. This leads to higher chances of launch. But leaders often worry about wasted time and resources on projects that are poorly conceived by people who may lack the business acumen of a leadership team.

The way to mitigate this is not to control the process, which takes the ownership away, but to create boundaries for the innovation up-front. It serves no-one to have unfettered innovation brainstorming that wastes time and effort. Far better, is to give a narrow brief that has the business acumen built in, and that allows a team to form around the options it generates. For example, you could set out to do the following.

Ask employees to self-select to a team to: launch a new, online marketplace that helps connect the business to its end users that are currently serviced mainly by its distributers. The marketplace must be able to be monetised in its second year to a revenue of at least $2 million and it must launch within six months. How? What marketplace? – leave that to the team and check in.

Make it clear up-front that there are accountabilities to move this project to the stage where there is a minimum viable product presented to potential customers. This sorts out the people who like the idea from those who will do the idea.

The project above makes sure the team’s focus is on the revenue generation and a value-generating relationship with end users. Other risks for the broader organisation like cannibalisation and departure from the core are not in scope for this team so the project per se won’t exclude disruptive innovation. These types of projects make it more likely an incumbent business will disrupt its own market.

This type of ‘aerobic innovation’, learning by doing, is the best way to foster more entrepreneurial activity within your organisation. As different projects gain ground and some fail, there is more learning, and more orientation for change. Change fitness occurs because the emphasis is about the activity of innovation not the thinking of ideas alone. Thus, innovative change gets baked in as a capability, not a management request.