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Four Principles To Change How You Approach Innovation

Gary Nakanelua, Managing Director of Innovation at Blueprint Technologies.

“We need more innovation!” Those words are often heard in boardrooms in the face of flat or declining revenue. Well-intentioned executives, pouring through market research and competitive analysis, believe innovation will be the silver bullet to problems. 

In enterprise environments, the typical response is to establish innovation teams or to invest in an innovation lab. That is not an inherently wrong decision, but it often won’t realize the hoped-for return on investment. 

Instead, a more successful approach is to cultivate a state of being that breeds innovation as a sense of purpose. Innovation doesn’t come from the boardroom. It is not isolated geniuses. It’s not a building that houses research and development or the random musings of the vocal few who choose to adopt a technology that others don’t understand. 

Innovation is how companies solve a problem in a radically different way to improve people’s lives. Effective innovation is employed when people are focused on problem-solving. When they allow constraints to focus their creativity. When they crave feedback. When they are prepared to throw everything away and start again if they’re not solving the right problem. That’s the frame of mind that encourages innovation, which allows innovation to transcend the boardroom banter and become a part of company culture. 

When approached this way, products, services and even entire businesses can be created and reinvented. Innovative creations can be found in many great examples in recent history. Gmail came into existence because its creators hypothesized “their email problems would eventually be everybody’s problems.” Post-it Notes were originally invented by 3M scientists to stop bookmarks from falling out of church hymnals. Ruth Graves Wakefield allegedly discovered the chocolate chip cookie when she was attempting to make Butter Drop Do cookies for guests at the Toll House Inn and ran out of baker’s chocolate. These products illustrate innovation as an outcome rather than a goal. 

The First Four Principles 

Here are four principles that help organizations achieve a state of being that fosters innovation: 

1. Be maniacal about the problem. 

What problem, experienced by humans, are you maniacally driven to solve?

Ideally, the problem you choose should be one that you have intimate knowledge about. In a Forbes article, Spanx founder Sara Blakely shares the pain from uncomfortable pantyhose that led to her invention, “It’s Florida, it’s hot, I was carrying fax machines.” If it’s a problem you don’t experience directly, immerse yourself with those who do. Their pain should become your pain.

2. Be excited by constraint. 

Constraint breeds focus and creativity. Unless a constraint breaks the laws of physics, draw motivation from it. During the development of the initial iPhone, the software engineering team was “struggling for months to lay out the software vision.” Steve Jobs gave the engineering team two weeks to figure it out, or he would assign the project to another team.

3. Be hungry for feedback. 

To truly solve a problem and improve people’s lives, you need insight into the impact of the solution.

Throughout the entire lifecycle of a solution, you should crave feedback. Not all feedback is created equal, and some is dismissed out of hand. However, if the problem and constraint are key ingredients for finding a solution, then feedback is how you refine it. In 2017, a Tesla customer tweeted at Elon Musk with feedback about what to do with the steering wheel and driver seat once the vehicle was in park. Elon responded that the feedback would be integrated into a future software release. 

4. Be ready to blow everything up.

Tenacity and grit are often key for new endeavors, but stubbornness and fear can breed complacency. If you are truly maniacal about solving the problem, you need to blow it up when an idea doesn’t meet the mark.

The founders of Twitter originally set out to form a podcasting platform called Odeo. When Apple announced in 2015 that iTunes would include a podcasting platform, the Odeo team realized they weren’t even using their own platform. “We built [Odeo], we tested it a lot, but we never used it,” an Odeo engineer said. A year later, Odeo’s podcasting platform was scrapped, and Twitter began to emerge. 

Real-World Example: Into The Studio 

Recently, I was at Sam Phillips Recording Studio in Memphis. I was saturated in rock ‘n’ roll history trail blazed by the late Sam Phillips with everyone from Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash to Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. 

In the control room, I watched a band that had driven three hours to record some new songs for their upcoming sophomore album. They only had the studio for the day, were exposed to recording constraints and, at one point, a piece of equipment caught on fire. Despite all of this, they constantly experimented and integrated feedback from the sound engineer. Even after one song had been recorded and considered done, the band opted to later change the tempo, which meant it would need to be re-recorded. 

The band didn’t set out to make a platinum record or a hit single. Instead, the band explored what music people would relate to. This is how the path to innovation should be: It is a state of being when you’re uncertain of how something will turn out, but you are immersed in experimentation and fueled by an overwhelming desire to impact people.   

Innovation Comes From Culture 

Yes, every company needs more innovation. This call to action should be answered by every leader passionate about innovating while maintaining operational excellence. The four principles will change how innovation occurs within your company and incubate a state of being that transforms innovation from a rallying cry to corporate culture. 

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