Mastering Innovation

In the quest to compete in a “new and improved” world, innovation became a catch-all term for anything that is different from that which came before. But change for change’s sake is not innovation and innovation, as new and shiny as it may be, is not the same thing as invention and invention is not the same thing as discovery.

Mastering the innovation process begins with understanding these important differences.

“The big thing to understand is that unlike discovery and invention, innovation is a process that can be planned for and controlled,” said Carl Frappaolo, innovation expert and director of Knowledge Management at FSG, a nonprofit consulting firm specializing in strategy, evaluation and research.

If necessity is the mother of invention then profit is the father of innovation. Typically, an invention addresses a need while an innovation appeases one or more desires (including the desire to use an invention).

“There’s a reason everything is compared to sliced bread,” chuckled Frappaolo. “It’s the most successful innovation yet. The simple act of slicing bread for the convenience of customers led to huge and profitable changes in the baking industry.”

Sliced bread was an innovation that satisfied the consumer’s desire for convenience and the company’s desire for a differentiator that would lead to increased sales. Need never entered the equation. Invention and discovery didn’t either since both breads and knives already existed. Yet this seemingly unremarkable innovation oft cited in the old adage “the best thing since sliced bread” is the benchmark for other innovations and inventions.

The first step in mastering innovation, then, is to understanding it is not a series of “Eureka!” moments that end in a massive single undertaking. To think this way is to doom any chance of eking creative thoughts from your own mind or your staff’s. “If people think only Edison, Jobs and Gates can innovate, we’re done as a species,” said Dan Keldsen, president of Information Architected, a boutique consultancy focused on the intelligent use of content, knowledge and processes to drive innovation.

Before you can successfully deploy the next steps in the innovation process you must release yourself and your team from the notion that you must individually or collectively produce a “Big Idea.” In the end, you may arrive at a Big Idea, but to do so you need to first remove any pressures to produce such a thing. Indeed, you must remove anything from the mindscape that can impede creative thought.

“The hard part about all this is counterintuitive because the best results come from releasing the thinking mind,” said Nat Wasserstein, managing director at Lindenwood Associates, a crisis management firm. “So the ‘brain’ in brainstorming isn’t really the part that analyzes, deduces, or applies reason.”

Discard the box

“Thinking outside the box” was a phrase once filled with possibilities. It could still be useful if it had not become such a cliché. It is the deviating (no, not devious!) thoughts that create innovation. Therefore, all familiar paths and structured thinking must be discarded at the beginning of the innovation process; the mind must be open to free association.

“The best way to describe this is to consider what happens when you lay on the grass looking up at the clouds,” explained Wasserstein. “Eventually you see shapes, then objects, then relationships between objects.”

This is the same process that occurs in a successful brainstorming session aimed at creating innovation.

There are a number of tools and exercises designed to enable creative thinking — the very root of innovation. Among the most commonly used is Force Fitting, an exercise where two objects are randomly selected from a collection of unrelated items. The team must then think of connections between the two. This exercise enables the brain to see familiar objects from a different perspective and forces it to “fit” the two together; to find their connections. This drags the mind away from its more comfortable, predictable ruts and into the realm of possibilities (and, hopefully, profits).

Mind mapping is a useful tool in accomplishing the same thing but between ideas, rather than objects. Generally, any tool, even a pen and cocktail napkin, can serve to help you and your team visualize concepts and the possible connections between those concepts.

There are tools such as eBeam and PaperShow that are specifically designed to capture, file and share your paper and board scribbles. Other tools such as PhatPad for iPads work like paper. Even with a tech conversion, some teams find paper and pen, chalkboards and whiteboards too clumsy for this work and prefer more traditional mind mapping software such as MindMeister, XMind, MindManager, Basecamp, FreeMind, Mindomo and SmartDraw instead.

The best ideas for innovation will lie inside the connections formed. Often, they will be completely unexpected. Whereas logic and analysis may lead innovation teams to build a more competitive product, mind mapping can lead them to creating a new market. To assist with such break-away thinking, there are tools such as Blue Ocean Strategy that aid the innovation process beyond the notion of an existing market and current competitors.

Some innovation teams find breaking out of the workplace itself to be the most productive means of brainstorming.

“We do sit and brainstorm and we also like to go home, think on our own and come back,” said Alex Shapiro, CarBuzz App Marketing director. “On a very different level, we’ve come up with great ideas when we’ve had company outings like playing paintball.”

The path from tools to process

While the process may begin with free association thinking, it ends with hard business decisions.

“People see connections in brain-storming sessions and together they take these idea fragments and make connections between them until several complete and innovative ideas emerge,” explained Keldsen. “From there you have to make hard decisions on which of those ideas you will pursue or implement.”

Think of it this way, Edison came up with thousands of variations on the light bulb but only a few were commercially viable and those are the ideas that came to fruition.

The key is to weigh each idea against hard business parameters: production or implementation costs, emerging trends, potential success or failure rates, and existing business intelligence, to name but a few. Don’t worry if obstacles lead to a fresh brainstorming session as this is common and often smarter than just dumping a new idea out of hand. Indeed, a cycle of improvements is to be expected throughout the life of any idea.

Once the innovation process is completed, begin implementation of the ideas that made it through the evaluation gauntlet. Do not, however, limit yourself to implementing one idea at a time. Why?

“There is no more dangerous an idea than for it to be the only idea you have,” said Keldsen.

After all this begin again … wash, rinse, repeat. There is no perfect solution and, even if there were, the questions themselves will change over time. The process of innovation must therefore continue endlessly if you are to survive and prosper.

A prolific and versatile writer, Pam Baker’s published credits include numerous articles in leading publications including, but not limited to: Institutional Investor magazine,, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers. She has also authored several analytical studies on technology and eight books. Baker also wrote and produced an award-winning documentary on paper-making. She is a member of the National Press Club (NPC), Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and the Internet Press Guild (IPG).