I used to picture innovation as something mysterious that would happen in a scientist’s lab. But after working at a highly innovative company, I have learned that it is quite the opposite. In fact, the process of innovation is straightforward. We plan for it.
But first, let’s be clear that creativity and innovation are not the same thing.
What is creativity? It is the process of coming up with new ideas related to products, services, or systems. It involves imagination, and it works best when people work collaboratively and freely combine ideas and knowledge.
For more on creativity, check out this excellent blog by one of my colleagues, Lynda Monk: 5 Ways to Cultivate Creativity in Life and Work
What is innovation? It is the act of implementing creative ideas. Innovation puts creativity to work and makes it useful.
Not every innovative idea is a big idea. Some innovative ideas include ways to simplify a process, remove a pain point, or make something a bit easier to use. Here are three big ideas for making your innovation process work:
Big Idea 1: Plan for Innovation
Innovation fuels an organization’s ability to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world, which is why we can’t simply wait for innovation to happen organically. Instead, we must create intentional space for creativity and innovation. At my place of work, we plan for innovation. Here are two innovation ideas you can use:
- Send people to conferences in groups: When our staff attend conferences, we normally send them with at least one companion. We ask them to pay attention to what they hear, ask themselves what they are learning, and consider what they can do with the ideas back in our office. Then we ask them to plan projects where they can apply their ideas to what we do. Those projects become part of our organization’s project list.
- Hold innovation meetings: Every year, we plan an innovation day. On that day, all staff stop their regular duties to focus on innovation. Each person is assigned to a team. Each team has creative people, detail people, and action-oriented people. Then we ask a series of questions that each team must answer. Here’s a free innovation guide that details our process. This meeting generates enough projects to last a year. It’s highly energizing and motivating.
Innovation is the act of implementing creative ideas. It puts creativity to work and makes it useful.
Big Idea 2: Innovation is Problem-Solving
One of our most helpful discoveries in the past few years is that we can take the mystery out of innovation by thinking about it as problem-solving.
When you consider innovation as a problem-solving process, you can quickly zero in on some key questions that will guide your discussion. Here are two questions you can use to focus your discussions:
- What’s bugging you? What are some daily/weekly irritations that you would like to fix? Asking this question gets people focused on what’s bothering them and it’s incredibly satisfying to fix something that has created ongoing irritation. We have fixed everything from a poor filing system, to squeaky doors, to website issues.
- What are some common problems that our clients have? How could we fix them? This question gets us to take the perspective of the people we serve. It can either be asked as a general question or in relation to the services you provide. Either way, this turns our focus to how we can provide more helpful and relevant services to people based on what we are hearing from them.
Big Idea 3: Learn from Failure
Not every idea your team creates will work out well. In fact, some will probably fail miserably. This is okay, and you might just find some gold in the failure.
We failed recently. In an effort to reduce paper and create a more efficient way of tracking the information that comes from thousands of evaluations, we created an online evaluation system for our public workshops. But it didn’t work. Our completion rate went from about 95% to 25%. Some participants were upset because they didn’t have a device on which to complete the evaluation at the workshop. The online evaluation shifted work from one staff person to another who didn’t need more tasks. And our trainers missed the immediate feedback that they could read on the paper evaluations.
So, with an apology to our trainers, we went back to paper. But we found a little gold in the failure. Through our error, we discovered that we can make our paper evaluations machine-readable. That small discovery will save someone about two weeks of labour this summer.
Innovation is often like this. Some things won’t work the way you imagined, but if you keep your eyes open, you will make other helpful discoveries. The important thing to remember when there is a failure is to look for learning, not blame.
Innovation shouldn’t be mysterious. Plan for it. Make it about solving problems. Learn from failure. That’s it for now. Good luck!
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