MT Expert Innovation: Getting better at innovation

IDEO's Paul Bennett on why some companies are better than others at 'The I-Word'.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

We see it all the time: businesses looking to innovate face a battle between The Big and The Small. Those that win are able to reconcile the wants of The Big – the organisation – and the needs of The Small: their customers. Well here’s a newsflash: Small is The New Big, and companies in the know are listening to and bringing their customers into the process of creating ‘stuff’: new products, services, businesses or even organisational changes.

The companies (both large and small) that are winning these daily battles have developed their own approach to innovation. Each is unique and interesting in its own way. Take Dell for example: its IdeaStorm is a great example of letting the consumer contribute to the lifecycle of the design and creation of new products and services.  The BBC developed a creative network to support the innovation process – a team of 50 trained BBC staff, some dedicated to the network but most of whom are operational managers.  El Bulli, deemed the best restaurant in the world, closes for six months of the year to allow for culinary research and development at the laboratory kitchen, which is built for no-holds-barred creativity. 

The one thing that each of these organisations has in common is their understanding of the I-word.  Here are some lessons I’ve learned from being in the Innovation Trenches with clients like these:

1. It’s about DOING. Innovation is not a noun, it’s a verb. It’s not about flow charts, clever Venn diagrams, hypothesizing and numerous rounds of discussion in the conference room.  Innovation is about doing stuff. It’s about looking (with your own eyes) for gaps, needs, holes and business opportunities – and then creating, designing and making real solutions to them.

2. Innovation is about PEOPLE. Actual people. Not the ones in focus group suites who answer questions about you and your products. It’s the ones whose homes you go into, the ones that you listen to, the ones that you quietly watch preparing their breakfast and going about their day that generate ideas for you and your team.  These are the people that you should ask for feedback, and these are the people you should credit for helping you get there when you do.

3. FAILURE is important too. You are going to get it wrong a whole lot before you get it right. These days we live in a ‘beta’ culture, where nothing is absolute any more; where the next, improved version is waiting for our feedback before it gets improved and iterated upon. The same is true of innovation. Spending years (and a fortune) perfecting it probably means that someone else will beat you to it. Prototype it fast and cheaply, put it out there and ask for feedback. When you get it, add it to the mix, iterate again and keep on going until it works. 85% is the new 100% when it comes to perfection.

4. COLLABORATION is key. It’s about everyone chipping in and doing their bit, building things together and all getting the credit for the whole. Mashing together skill-sets and interests makes for a more interesting team dynamic, and for a better end result. From my experience, the grumpy guy in R&D is usually grumpy because no one ever asks him to play.

5. In the end, innovation simply comes down to BRAVERY. You’re either going to leap into the void or you’re not. There are no guarantees, no sure-wins and no secret Celestine Prophecy ways to add up the numbers to create a sure-win formula. You just have to be brave. Try it.


Paul Bennett is Chief Creative Officer and European Managing Director of IDEO, which works with companies to identify opportunities for growth; to design and build new offerings; and to instil the cultural capabilities needed to innovate.

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