Controlling weather, pacifying volcanic eruptions, channeling energy from time and space? If you believe the stories, these and other unbelievable technologies forever disappeared from the face of the Earth when Atlantis sunk below the roiling ocean. Real or not, if the founders of Atlantis ever existed, they were certainly incredible innovators. The good news for us is that their purported powers of innovation are not an unfathomable secret.
So, where does disruptive and transformative innovation really come from?
It always amazes me how many leaders believe the answer to creating transformative innovation is to thrust a group of smart people into a room; surround them with whiteboards; ply them with snacks; and then wait for the flood of brilliant ideas. I’ve even seen companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars building “innovation labs”, equipped with the latest collaboration tools that never generate anything more than mildly interesting concepts.
Why are some companies truly innovative and others aren’t? While there is no simple answer to that question, there are plenty of examples in history that provide a good indication of where most innovation originates. Being a technologists and a science lover, some examples that immediately come to my mind are folks like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Page, Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, and many others. In today’s terms, we’d probably call these people “futurists”, intellectuals, or perhaps visionaries. Some were geniuses and others, we might argue, were simply incredibly intuitive. The point is that great ideas most often originate in the mind of a single individual. The good news, is that these types of visionaries are not as uncommon as you might think. You don’t need to be a genius to come up with a brilliant idea. You just need to see the world a bit differently.
You might ask if am I saying that teams, brainstorming, and collaboration don’t matter when it comes to innovation? The obvious answer to that question is a resounding “no”. While there are smaller number of people who can come up with the truly inspirational ideas, many lack the ability to bring the concept to life without the help of others. Think of what Apple would have become without the combination of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak – probably nothing.
So, how do we drive transformative innovation?
As the old saying goes, the devil is in the details, but the formula is really quite simple:
- Environment – create an environment that enables and encourages people to contribute ideas – any idea. Prematurely filtering ideas will have a tendency to discourage out-of-the-box thinking. So leave the sleuth gates wide open. Establish a process that allows the best ideas to bubble to the surface.
- Invest – be willing to invest time and money nurturing promising ideas. I’ve always loved the model that allows individuals and teams to spend as small amount of their time each week working on innovation projects. This is not a free-for-all basket-weaving event and obviously some control must be exercised. But out of the controlled chaos, you’ll find a few gems to harvest if you keep an open mind. As a bonus, you’ll also end up with staff that feel more engaged and excited to come to work everyday.
- Capitalize – once you’ve hooked onto something really compelling, don’t be afraid to capitalize on it. This is where a little corporate risk taking is necessary. So, set aside funds to bring compelling ideas to market or to at least test the waters with potential customers. If you don’t take calculated risks, you can bet there’s someone else out there that that is going to beat you to the punch. It’s the willingness to step out on the ledge and execute on good ideas that turn them into something valuable.
Is it that simple?
Conceptually yes, in practice no. Remember that devil? The formula is simple but putting into place the right elements and establishing a culture that truly embraces innovation can be tough. Company culture, financial pressures, and many other factors can make it a challenge for even the most seasoned leader to implement an effective innovation program.
The key is to find a champion – a visionary who can help transform the organization and can see a future of many possibilities.
Innovation does not have to be a secret left at the bottom of the sea along with the Lost of City of Atlantis. With the right leadership, great ideas are just waiting to be harvested. The question is will you be the first one to find and bring them to the surface?
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