Innovation is like motherhood; everyone worships it, but it's surrounded by a lot of mystique and bogus intellectualizing. The first step on the way to inspiring innovation is to ruthlessly expunge the romantic myths that surround it -- they often stop us from seeing the fresh ideas that are right in front of us. Here are four of the biggest myths about innovation, along with tips for seeing your way around them:
Myth #1: Innovation Involves Quantum Leaps. According to this myth, innovation must be transformative. The PC was a quantum leap innovation, as were the printing press and the automobile. But there aren't many of these. Furthermore, quantum leaps typically involve high costs and huge risks. Think Sinclair C5 or the Segway. Both required changes in consumer behavior that didn't happen.
The better alternative? Think constant, incremental improvement. Think about the iPhone 4. How many avid purchasers really needed to edit video on the fly? Loyalists bought the phone because Apple has made its customers fall in love with upgrades. Or, in this economy, simply finding ways to make your products more cheaply may be innovation enough.
Myth #2: Only Geeks May Apply. We're constantly told that engineers are the only people who make important innovations. But there are many other sources of ideas. If you're good at noticing social change, you might invent comfortable clothes that transition effortlessly from work to dinner, like Eileen Fisher. If you understand the green revolution, you could make new products from old ones, like Preserve Products. In the UK, Yo Sushi (pictured) owes as much of its success to the growing number of business people eating alone as it does to its food. Innovators are people who pay attention, not just geeks cooped up in cubicles. (For ideas on this front, stay tuned for my next post.)
Myth #3: Innovation Requires Off-Sites with Geniuses. Much has been written about Nathan Myhrvold's Intellectual Ventures, the company he started after retiring from Microsoft. He gets all his super-smart pals to read scientific papers and then convene to solve Big Problems. So far, they've filed over 500 patents -- but where are the businesses? Ideas are cheap, functional companies and real products are hard. Or, as Steve Jobs said, "real artists ship."
Forget the geniuses; give thinking time to your staff instead. W.L. Gore, the maker of Gore-Tex fabric, requires that all employees spend half a day each week working on their own new ideas or helping with someone else's. Are you prepared to be that serious about innovation?
Myth #4: Innovators Are a Special Breed. According to this myth, to be innovative, you need to hire an innovator with a track record. But beware: just like stocks, past performance is no guarantee for the future. Even Steven Spielberg has made flops. The romantic belief in the power of individual creative geniuses won't make you smart, it will make you dependent. You'll do better to cultivate creativity as a process. Oh and by the way: your customers are fantastic sources of ideas, if you know how to talk to them.
If you work from the assumption that every person in your business is capable of having a good idea, then you have to ask yourself a serious question: What is stopping that idea from contributing to your business? It may be mythology. It may be processes. It may be individuals. It might even be you. What are you going to do about that? Where are your next ideas going to come from?
Photo courtesy Flickr user Ashley R. Good, CC 2.0