Igloos and Innovation
I’m captivated by innovation! It can occur in the moment for an individual or become wildly contagious. Often, it inspires and transforms, making the ordinary, extraordinary.
As a parent, I witnessed innovation in action watching my children and their friends create an igloo village during an historic snowstorm for us. In that context, innovation was effortless, sparked by a massive amount of raw materials (snow and ice) literally dumped in front of us – and the time to experiment and create at will. In business, innovation seems to require more effort. And perhaps by definition, there is no single way to innovate or drive innovation – just consider the broad variety of articles, posts, and research about the art and science of innovation. Yet, reflecting on the many posts I’ve read and shared about innovation lately, there are a few common threads. Most importantly:
Innovation needs help.
While innovation can sometimes feel like magic, it really isn’t. It takes deliberate attention and persistent effort. And even with those, innovation may not happen. For me, three things stand out to drive innovation:
1. Create space for innovation. It’s easy to get caught up in the doing and focused on outcomes. Both are pretty important. But the cool stuff – the truly innovative approaches and answers – often come when and from where they are least expected. Ever get a new idea in the shower?
Allow your mind – and your team – to wander.
Our minds are often more busy than our calendars or more cluttered than our desks. It’s hard to be innovative or creative amid all of that activity! Interestingly, it may require clearing your calendar or doing something “mindless” to give your brain the space it needs to reveal insights. (A colleague files papers when he needs a mental break.) Similarly, your team benefits from time deliberately set aside to explore ideas or learn about things that may seem tangential or perhaps, completely unrelated. Many innovations start well outside the problem they are trying to solve or their current environment.
2. Know it when you see it. Innovation stories usually have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. We see the new thing and have had time to consider its impact; from that we determine the extent to which and in what ways that new thing is/was innovative. But what did it look like at the outset? How did its creators know this was ‘it’?
Take a chance.
Perhaps by definition, innovation bears risk. It’s a new thing that, when implemented effectively, becomes or allows something wholly different. The path to success is unlikely to be straightforward; the outcome is most certainly, uncertain. So, take a chance.
3. Give it some structure. This one feels counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t innovation be the absence of structure; the absolute freedom to experiment? Certainly, rigid rules, thinking, and processes can quash creativity and innovation. Yet, without some basic structure, it’s hard to identify innovations or to know what to do with them. For larger or more complex organizations, that’s even more difficult.
Keep it simple.
Design a simple process to collect, sort, fund, and monitor ideas. Reward a range of ideas – from crazy or outlandish, to tiny adjustments, or big shifts. Perhaps apply some of the principles of test-and-learn or agile thinking to allow adaptions along the way – or stop something quickly before spending good money after bad. Creating some basic structure makes it possible not only to encourage innovation, but also to identify it, and then, nurture it – without breaking the bank or overloading on risk.
For me, innovation is captivating because one never knows where it will arise or what will spark the ‘next big thing’.
Sometimes, it’s a series of little innovations that combine to have great impact.
Our school snow day created space for innovation. The children saw piles of good, packing snow, plus a flat space with trees for added support. Together, they devised a way to turn the snow into structures, even adding water as needed. Voila! While igloos aren’t themselves new, these kids came at it in a new way, without benefit of a users’ manual. For them, innovation transformed a snow pile into an igloo village.
Strategy is about the decisions and actions needed to close the gap between where you are and what you want to achieve. Innovation has the power to enable those actions, shift the playing field, or point your business in a whole new direction. So take a now day. And perhaps, build an igloo!