5 Steps to Being an Innovator [and How to Innovate at Work]

7 min read
5 Steps to Being an Innovator [and How to Innovate at Work]

Innovation is often associated with rare “eureka!” moments that visionaries have once in a lifetime. We tend to ascribe it to revolutionary ideas that change the course of history: the assembly line, the telephone, the internet. But such a lofty understanding actually understates innovation, because it happens every day, all around the world. Major innovations, even small ones, change the way we communicate, the way we take care of ourselves and the way we interact with the world.

The truth on how to be innovative is that it does not simply appear out of the ether; it comes out of inspiration by people looking at simple problems. Consider the following adage often attributed to Theodore Levitt

People don’t want quarter-inch drill bits. They want quarter-inch holes.

Too often innovation is thought of as “how do I improve something?” when the real question should be, “how can I fulfill this need?” When the spark of that idea is nurtured by strategic vision, then innovation can be incorporated into a workable product or business – and that’s where the magic happens.

Let’s look at five ways you can better foster innovation for yourself and your business environment.

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What Is an Innovation Strategy?

“This is going to be a period where you disrupt or you’re going to get disrupted.” – John Chambers, former CEO of Cisco Systems and head of JC2 Ventures

Innovation is disruption. It’s looking at all the available solutions and realizing that we’re trying to solve the wrong problem. Often it’s less about finding ways to improve an industry than it is discovering that you can create a new one. And the really exciting aspect of innovation is that, if you don’t make it happen, it’s guaranteed that someone else eventually will.

As an inherently disruptive force, innovation pushes against the boundaries of organizations. “That’s not how we do things” isn’t a word of caution to an innovator, it’s a challenge. The tension is how can you encourage innovation in a positive direction that allows collaboration and iteration.

Innovation as a strategy is a complex, company-wide endeavor that requires a set of cross-cutting practices and processes to structure, organize and encourage it. We find that the best approach involves mapping the call for innovation to your organization’s mission, vision and value propositions. 

This sets a framework for your innovation performance expectations, helping to simplify and structure the work that needs to be done. In this way you can avoid innovating just for the sake of it, as your efforts have to contribute to your larger goals.

How to Develop an Innovation Strategy for Your Business

“Instead of focusing on the fires at your feet, raise your head and look to the horizon and focus on creating the circumstances that allow you to win. This is about thinking one rung higher on the abstraction ladder.” – Risto Siilasmaaa, Chairman of Nokia

Think back to the adage we opened with — the key to innovation isn’t looking at ways to solve the problem in front of you, it’s taking a step back and asking if there’s a larger problem/issue/need that should be addressed instead. That’s a larger perspective that can be difficult to attain, so here’s five recommended steps on how you foster innovation from within:

  1. Listen to your customers – The issues and problems of the people that you’re serving, whether they’re external to your business or a part of it, will highlight the things you should focus on.
  2. Keep asking “So what?” – Not to your customers, but to yourself.  “So what’s the real issue here?” “So what’s causing this?” So what do they really want?” It’s an interrogation to understand your customer’s functional or emotional problem, need or task they’re trying to accomplish.
  3. “Think outside the box” – It’s a cliche’, but it’s also fundamental to innovation. This is where you push yourself to explore new and unconventional approaches and techniques  of solving the “so what.”
  4. Experiment with new solutions – Bottom line, it actually has to work. Set yourself up in a safe environment and start trying out these new solutions to see what’s going to happen.
  5. Rinse and repeat – You’re going to fail. Repeatedly. This is the real truth to innovation, that it doesn’t form from nothing, but comes about through dedication, iteration and perseverance. If you want to make this work within your business, you’re going to need to create the right environment for it.

“You’ve got to be willing to throw some things against the wall and hope that something sticks, and be able to have a process in place to nurture those ideas that need to be incubated. You need a disciplined process in place to ensure that if they don’t work, you move on to the next thing — but when something starts to work, you double-down quick.” – Bill Amelio, CEO of Avnet

You may not be able to break down the walls of your organization, but you can make them bendable. If you and your coworkers are going to have the time and space to innovate, you need support from the right culture and management practices. Here’s five recommended steps on how your organization can help everyone be more creative and innovative at work:

  1. Determine Overall Objectives and Approach – If it’s going to accomplish anything worthwhile, your innovation strategy should support your business objectives and vice versa. This is where you map the call for innovation to your organization’s mission and vision.
  2. Define Your Value Proposition – Next comes the value proposition where you’ll need to focus on creating value.
    • Are you saving your customers money, time or effort?
    • Are your customers willing to pay more for what you’re offering?
    • Is there a larger societal benefit at play?
    • Is what you’re offering more convenient, better performing or an entirely new feature?
    • How much more durable / affordable / novel is it compared to other products in the market?
  3. Determine Your Capabilities – The active use of prototypes can help your organization develop, test, validate and refine innovative ideas. To support that process, you’ll need to answer some more questions:
    • Can you execute the ideas in a scalable manner?
    • What roles will R&D, production, marketing and finance play in development?
    • Who is in charge of overseeing the projects and allocating resources?
    • Who is responsible for managing the budget, determining time to market and setting key specifications?
  4. Communicate Your Strategy – Even the best idea won’t go anywhere if the process of development isn’t clearly communicated and integrated with the rest of the organization. Senior managers need to prioritize active communication and engagement to help motivate and support people. The project team needs to be cross-functional and open, ensuring other teams are aware of goals and purpose. Communicating about what you’re doing, as well as why you’re doing it, will make buy-in much easier.
  5. Measure for Success – Selecting the right metrics and setting reasonable expectations will help determine if a project is on the right track or if it’s time to bail out. Having a consistent and systematic measurement for progress will keep things on task and adaptable. You can’t do this in a silo, so again, communication and transparency is vital.

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Examples of Successful Innovation at Work

“If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that.”Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon

Every organization recognizes the need for innovation, and the largest organizations often became that way by capitalizing on a novel idea and finding ways to continue encouraging development and risk-taking. Here’s how some of the biggest players in the game have developed their own business innovation strategies:

  • Shell Oil’s GameChanger team is independent of the standard approval process for projects, allowing for greater experimentation and faster development. One of their more recent initiatives is to promote ‘outside-in’ open innovation — cultivating and connecting to other communities in order to promote new combinations of people, infrastructure and capabilities.
  • Procter & Gamble’s Connect & Develop team fosters innovation between its business divisions units and external partners, including suppliers, scientists, entrepreneurs and even competitors. The initiative is continually searching for technologies and products that can be improved and marketed by P&G or in partnership with other companies.
  • Nike’s House of Innovation lab is free to pursue disruptive ideas while its business units are focused on developing incremental innovations — even if they don’t always pan out. As Senior Director of Product Sean Madden put it: “Innovation isn’t about the final product in a jewel case, it’s about the process and the failures and the iteration.”
  • Nestle’s “InGenius” innovation accelerator supports the global collaboration of employees by removing geographical and language barriers. Many of the disruptive ideas submitted to the platform have been implemented as initiatives, including the use of drones and new apps to streamline inventory and tracking. Other ideas include creating projects designed to improve irrigation in developing countries.

Formal Education Options for Innovation

“Find good advisers, mentors and teammates to discuss your thoughts and problem solve with. Make sure you listen to them. It doesn’t necessarily mean you always have to agree with them, but you do always have to be open to learning from others.”Hooi Ling Tan, co-founder of Grab

While it’s entirely possible to innovate on your own, it’s also the far more difficult option. If you’re fortunate enough to work within an organization that promotes development and experimentation, take full advantage of the possibilities afforded and talk things over with others. What have they found that works well? What resources do they recommend looking into? How can you help each other?

You can build up your own knowledge and skills by taking classes or courses of study that create spaces for innovation and development. If you’re thinking of supplementing your existing degree with more direct experience in innovation, consider looking into getting a graduate certificate in strategic innovation.

If you want to participate in a more structured program designed around skills and insights into innovation, consider a master’s degree program specifically designed for innovation in business development, such as the University of San Diego’s Master of Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship. USD MITE’s entire concept is built around innovating within the landscape of “connectivity” — the fast-moving and open possibilities of advanced information technologies, new business opportunities and societal needs.

You may also want to look into classes offered by any of the several Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Search platforms like Coursera, edX and Udemy for courses designed around innovation best practices and their relation to business.

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Tips for Every Day Innovations

“If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”  -Henry Ford likely apocryphal

Having an overarching strategy is important, as is being in the right environment, but day-to-day innovations still don’t always come easy. If you’re trying to be innovative at work, or you’re just  looking for ways to be more innovative in general, we’ll leave you with these tips to keep in mind.

  • Brainstorm with a partner. You can bounce ideas off each other, which can lead to ideas you may not have considered on your own.
  • Experiment with changing small things often, Experiment with small changes, even if it’s as simple as changing your workstation or finding a new writing environment.
  • Be more active within your space. Stand and walk around or even take some time to explore outside of the office. Being “stuck” is sometimes as much a physical issue as a mental one.
  • Ban something for a work session and try working without it. Maybe it’s a common software or work application, working without background music or writing everything down on paper instead of on the computer.

The entire reason we started the MITE at USD was to help future entrepreneurs discover the best way to innovate that plays to their interests, strengths and abilities. To learn more about how our online program can help you find your innovation, visit our site or contact us directly.