Pulp Innovation XVII: Defining Innovation

Marlow begins to present his case to the skeptical audience. Will the Accipiter management team succeed at defining innovation?

The room was quiet and expectant, like a bunch of first-time fathers waiting for the nurse to announce the birth of a new baby. They were also tired, distracted and thinking about the issues and challenges that had been raised during the day, and eager for the day to end so they could return to their email and phone calls. All that stood between them and freedom was me.

I felt it was important to establish my bona fides, so I started with a brief overview of the firms we had worked with, especially the Fortune 500 types that I knew most would readily recognize. As I walked through some different case studies and the work we’d done and successes we’d had, I could see several of the attendees paying more attention.  Several seemed to be carefully studying their laps.  Smartphones will be the death of the corporate meeting.

Then, I threw them a curve ball. I asked them for a definition of innovation. A few seemed curious, the rest a bit puzzled. One gentleman near the back of the room volunteered “Something new or different”.

I agreed. “Innovation is usually something new or different. Are there other definitions or descriptions you’d offer?  Anything to add to that definition?”

Another offered “Generating ideas about new products”.

“Yes” I said “That is also part of a definition about innovation”.

There were several other statements or partial definitions of innovation.

“Are you satisfied with the definitions we generated? If it’s this difficult or uncertain for the management team, how can Accipiter be successful at innovation if we can’t clearly define what it is?”

I continued.

“We define innovation as ‘people putting ideas into valuable action’. Note what this says. People – that is, you and your employees, generating ideas and converting those ideas into new products and services. It’s not enough to be ‘creative’ – to just generate ideas. Those ideas have to be evaluated and prioritized and implemented for the benefit of your customers or for Accipiter.”

Some more heads were nodding, some seemed even more skeptical.

“We work with management teams to create clarity about your purpose, your goals and your intent around innovation” I said “because while innovation can be one of the most important functions in your business, it’s also one of the most poorly defined functions and very risky, since it introduces change and uncertainty. Without clear communications and a well-defined goal, most of your employees can’t or won’t work on innovation effectively.”

Now the fish were beginning to rise to the bait.

“OK, I understand your perspective on the definition” a woman near the front said. “Will simply creating a better definition of innovation and communicating it effectively make us more innovative? We have a suggestion box and we do receive ideas, but most of them are fairly useless and don’t align to our needs or goals.”

Well, she’d done it. Waved the red flag at the bull. Talked about an undirected suggestion box as if that was the beginning and end of an innovation program.

“That’s great insight–I’m sorry I don’t know your name.”

“Teresa Smith”

“Teresa, your comment is on the mark and is indicative of what we see in many firms. Often we as management teams ask our employees for their ideas – which they are more than happy to provide. However, we don’t ask for ideas in specific areas where we as the management team need ideas most desperately, and we often aren’t clear about where we need their ideas the most. A definition of innovation can help, but so can using what we call directed ideation. Rather than an open suggestion box, we advise, and our clients can attest to this, that a directed ideation – idea campaigns where you ask for ideas to solve a specific problem or address a specific challenge, are much more effective. You know the most common sound right after an idea is submitted to an open suggestion box?”

“No”

“Sounds a lot like a shredder” That got some laughs, and a few of the executives who’d spent time staring at their laps perked up to see what was so funny. “The reason is that with an open suggestion box anyone can submit any idea, and they will. But when your team looks at those ideas, they don’t usually find much of value, since you haven’t provided guidance as to which ideas are most important to you.”

More heads were nodding, but I was losing valuable time. 15 minutes into a 45 minute pitch and I hadn’t even talked about the commitments the management team would need to make.

About the author:


Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is VP Marketing and a lead consultant for OVO Innovation. Jeffrey has led innovation projects for Fortune 5000 firms, academic institutions and not-for=profits based on OVO Innovation’s Innovate on Purpose™ methodology. The Innovate on Purpose methodology encourages organizations to consider innovation as a sustainable, repeatable business process, rather than a discrete project.

Jeffrey is the author of “Make Us More Innovative,” a book that encompasses much of the OVO Innovation methodology, and blogs about innovation at Innovate On Purpose. He is a sought after speaker and has presented to corporations, innovation oriented conferences, and at a number of universities. In 2010 he chaired the Innovate North Carolina conference and was a keynote speaker at Queen’s University, University of the Pacific, UNC and several other colleges and conferences. Jeffrey has an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin and an undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Virginia.

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