If you spend any time reading about business or marketing, you’d think everybody and their brother has suddenly become an innovation expert. Everybody wants to innovate! So why are so many people struggling to do it well?
I’ve spent a large portion of my working life helping companies bring their ideas to life, and based on whatever experience I’ve accumulated, I think two things either make it or break it for innovation. But to understand them we need to agree on exactly what “innovation” is.
I dropped the word into a search engine and liked the businessdictionary.com definition: The process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value or for which customers will pay. I bolded the words for emphasis, because while so many of us concentrate on the “idea or invention”—the new thing that looks so exciting as a slide in the strategic plan—it’s really these bolded parts that deliver.
Let’s start with the latter of these. If you have a great idea but you don’t yet know how it delivers enough value to get customers to pay for it, you are not yet innovating. You are experimenting. Now, experimenting is a very good thing, and it’s an early, essential part of innovating. But I’m going to argue that it’s not yet an innovation until it’s worth something to the people that buy your product. You won’t truly know that worth until you experiment, of course, but all too often we see managers crowing about their “innovation” without a clear hypothesis for what they hope their experiment will deliver, and even more commonly—without a clear plan to measure it.
We should have a clear idea about the value we hope to achieve with our idea, how that value translates into earnings, and how we will measure our experiment to see if it truly is an innovation or just an experiment.
By the way, I fully realize some experiments will fail, and I agree that they are an essential part of the innovation process. They’re just not true “innovations” until the value is proven.
Process is the other aspect of innovation that is often overlooked. I fought against process as a younger marketer because I thought it smothered innovation. I was wrong! If you don’t understand—and to a reasonable degree—document how you arrived at your innovation you either won’t be able to repeat it or you won’t be able to do so efficiently. The former is a lost opportunity and the latter is simply wasteful. Creating a good process for innovation takes time, but it’s what allows your company to take your great idea and turn it into something that keeps the lights on and the competitors a step behind. I’ve come to believe that a great project manager is as important as a great idea.
So there you have it: Two of my “secrets” to delivering innovation. Focus on the value and how you will deliver and prove it, and create a process for replicating it. If you can deliver those while everyone else is focused on just the “new idea,” you’ll be far ahead when management looks to see who their true “innovators” really are.