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What Really Drives Innovation: The Top 10 List

Maple Syrup season at our Adirondack office inspires us to boil things down to their essence. What follows is our distillation of what really works to create a sustainable innovation culture.

In our roles as attendees, presenters, leaders and emcees at various innovation and creativity conferences over the past 20 years, we’ve seen a lot of presentations that offer up suggestions for “how to drive innovation” through systems, processes, procedures, tools, business models, alliances, arrangements and so forth. We’ve enjoyed and learned from all of them, and reveled in the debates that ensued. (Two favorites: “Stage–gate doesn’t work,”; (George Land) vs. “Stage–gate is the only way!” (Deloitte & Touche) and “Brainstorming doesn’t work” (Larry Keeley, Doblin) vs. “We use structured brainstorming all the time for our outstanding results” (Tom Kelley, IDEO).

We believe the presenters’ assertions that their suggestions really do work — especially in their organizations, with their challenges, in their context. However, we believe the moment someone takes one of these polarized positions, and claims it as The Truth, they fall into the boiling vat of narrow–mindedness; missing the point of what drives innovation. All of these approaches are designed to work around defects, yet fail to emphasize the fact that the main obstacle to innovation is the human being.

Yes, it all boils down to people. People, and their resistance and the obstacles they have that block them from seeing things in new ways and doing things differently. All of the innovation methods are, at their essence, ways to get people to work productively and collaboratively.

Yes, the biggest resister of innovation is people. And yet the most significant driver of innovation is...people, which brings us to our list. One based on research, curious listening, and the collective experience in driving innovation in hundreds of organizations. Our list emphasizes (guess what?) people. The list...

10 Things That Really Drive Innovation:

1) The individual: You can ask “an organization” all day long to do something, but the basic building block of getting things done is an individual. Organizations, departments, divisions, groups, teams, etc. are all things that anthropologists describe. And they’re all units built from individual people. So focus on strengthening the primary building block to start moving the needle on innovation. Read The weakness of “we” and the power of “I” in innovation.

2) The team: Individuals make things happen, but in most cases, they can’t do it all by themselves. Innovation requires multiple skill sets, whether it’s invention, development, funding, marketing, patenting, operations, etc., those skill sets almost never exist in one person, so it requires multiple people to move it forward. Focus on improving effective and collaborative team dynamics to keep the innovation engine running smoothly. Most often, skill sets require training in a process that everyone in the team can work with. Involving the team in the creative and innovation process increases the probability that the innovation will see the light of day. Read How to sustain teambuilding efforts.

3) The enterprise: A sad truth is that individuals, in teams, when successful, become resistant to change. The successful innovation team of yesterday becomes the “this is the way we’ve always done it” team of tomorrow. Thought needs to be given to creating and sustaining enterprise–wide procedures, policies, metrics, recognition and executive–level accountability in order to keep the whole innovation vehicle running on the rough competitive road of the business cycle. Read How to build innovation in your organization

The three levels above are important to think about across the following additional drivers:

4) Processes: Think about improving the processes that drive innovation, but do so across all three levels described above. The individual level (e.g. processes to enhancing self awareness, emotional intelligence and cognitive ability), the group level (e.g. using a structured “brainstorming” or “ideation” or “creative process” to support teams in creating innovative solutions), and the enterprise level (e.g. the organizational system for idea management).

5) Offerings: There are many ways to look at what is “an innovation,” or the artifact of the innovation process. To only see innovation as “a product” is to overlook services, business models, alliances, processes, channels, and more. Expanding your scope to see that the BIG innovations were more than just a simple “product,” can change the way you see the world. The iPod would be nothing but a cool–looking gizmo if we couldn’t easily purchase and load music into it. Listerine Pocket Packs would never have made it to market if the team working on it had not innovated their way through organizational resistance to its market introduction.

6) Psychological climate: What are the stories that the individual is telling him/herself about what’s working? What’s not working? What’s acceptable? What’s our industry? What’s its scope? Does this make a difference to innovation? Absolutely, because how one defines the world will shape the newness that they create and enable. The right amount of personal freedom in the system, and the mental energy to explore new areas are the primary impactors on the psychological climate. Steady attention to the support of an effective psychological climate is a requirement for sustained innovative output.

7) Physical environment: Are people able to easily get together to communicate and work together? Are they able to escape and think in peace and quiet? Can they find a space to spread out and dig into prototypes/results/data? Think about improving the physical space in which people work such that it enables innovation (Hint: everyone has a different concept of the ideal environment).

8) Organizational culture: What are the stories that people tell in the organization about success? What are the ways that people discover and share about how things really get done? Any process and procedure that is set up usually has a workaround. What organizational leaders say is often drowned out by what people know is really going on. It’s not enough to just say Innovation is important! The organizational policies, management behaviors, things that are measured and executive messaging must all align to create the stories of work that create the culture. If you want innovation over the long haul, look at culture.

9) Economic climate/market conditions: the spot where innovation culture is easiest to maintain is when market conditions are such that there is not too much fear, or too much confidence. These are rare moments in the business cycle. Want to see innovation dry up and fade away? Announce a layoff/cutback/restructuring. Want to see people start to play it safe and stop putting things at risk? Let people know that sales are down, or that the economy is in the tank. Similarly, announce market dominance, the best year ever, or give a big bonus. People can get complacent. The smart innovation leader sets money aside to support experimentation when the market is down, and requires (creating real accountability as well) ever increasing innovative output when things are running really well. Parodoxically, research shows most organizations only get radically innovative when they are in “distress situations.” When there’s no other choice, that’s when people start really changing things up.

10) Geopolitical culture: Where you were born, where you live, the language you speak, where you work, how you were educated and the culture of those elements all make a difference. We all know that different cultures communicate differently, see the world differently, perceive different threats, and find value in different things. Every culture, every education system, has strength and weakness. Be arrogant about your culture at your own innovation peril. Curiously ask: “What cultural strengths can I leverage, and what cultural impediments must I work to overcome?” and you’re clearly on the path to innovation mastery.

Boil all 10 of these drivers down, and it all amounts to people or the output of people. So whether you’re making widgets, gizmos or boiling maple syrup, pay attention to the needs of the people so no one gets burned, and so that innovation can flourish.

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