Innovation in a business context cannot be a simple flash of brilliance. (It typically isn’t a simple flash of brilliance in any case, as we’ll discuss below.) Even in the rare cases that an innovative idea seems to come from nowhere, it must not end there. Businesses, and especially IT departments, need to deliver outcomes. A cool new gadget, algorithm, etc. is essentially meaningless until it enables or produces the desired results, e.g.: improve the customer experience, drive down costs, transform the business model. Only then is the energy from that flash of brilliance harnessed in a way that matters to the organization.
This focus on practicality feels unintuitive and different from how we usually think of innovation; the image of a single inventor being struck by a moment of genius is a powerful cultural paradigm. It is also neither realistic nor repeatable. Innovation driven by an undisciplined creative process will not predictably deliver results. This makes reliance on serendipity an innovation strategy unsuited for a corporate environment.
Completely net-new ideas are also often unsuccessful. If end users cannot easily understand the value of a product or service, nor learn how to rapidly engage with it, adoption will be slow to nonexistent. This is why software companies release frequent updates with modest changes versus major releases that require people to adapt to an entirely new user experience all at once. Humans are creatures of habit. Even the best new idea may fail if it is just too far from consumers’ realm of experience.
Creative Combinations are the Key to Innovation
Happily, however, most if not all innovations come not from the blue sky, but from a conscious combining of previously existing ideas. While this view of innovation isn’t as alluring as the stroke-of-genius model, it’s well proven, even by the geniuses themselves. Henry Ford said, “I invented nothing new. I simply assembled in a car the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work… So it is with every new thing.”
Ford was right. Every innovation, from the big leaps that transform the world to the pedestrian inventions that improve our daily lives, comes from a combination of ideas already in circulation.
- Johannes Gutenberg combined the flexibility of a coin punch with the power of a wine press to produce his printing press.
- Proctor & Gamble borrowed the idea for the Swiffer, a product now sold in more than 15 companies with $500 million in annual sales, from electrostatic cloths used by firefighters to clean up ashes without water.
Some of my personal favorite innovative combinations occur in the arts. Lady GaGa and Tony Bennett. Hamilton, “an achievement of historical and cultural reimagining” according to the New Yorker, combines historical white figures with traditionally black and Hispanic music and dance; Lin-Manuel Miranda saw particular resonance between his title character and Tupac Shakur. Before Miranda’s time, West Side Story merged the tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet with the fraught cultural climate of the 1950s. Arthur Laurents, one of the writers of West Side Story, remarked “I think the innovation was having death, attempted rape, murder in a musical… The subject matter – bigotry and violence and prejudice – [the idea] that people would pay money to see that with an orchestra.”
Build a Repeatable Process for Consistent Innovation Results
As evidenced by these examples, combining existing ideas in creative ways generates the tremendous successes that we call innovation. The same approach works in the corporate environment. When we tackle innovation not as a creative endeavor but as a disciplined approach to componentizing ideas, it becomes both repeatable and measurable.
- Take an existing idea
- Break it down into its component parts
- Prioritize the most successful components
- Combine different components or different ideas in unique ways
It sounds overly simple, but it is dramatically effective.
This approach allows organizations to experiment with new concepts in an organized way. As a predictable process, yield can be measured. Modifications can be made to both the process and its outcomes to increase success. Behaviors that lead to success can be better understood. And perhaps most importantly, innovation no longer relies on a single or limited number of creative souls. The process can be taught, and is in fact often most effective when practiced with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, education, and experience.
Think Collaboratively For the Best Results
Framing the innovation process as just that – a process – also makes it inherently collaborative. Teams that innovate must work together to bring diverse ideas to the table and then build upon them in creative ways. The great minds closest to Einstein – Mach, Planck, Lorentz – famously “did not fully embrace his work because they were too close to it, too committed to what they had known before.” This is a powerful lesson learned for today’s often siloed businesses.
That collaboration extends beyond the organization’s walls as well. By borrowing from historical ideas, innovators collaborate with the creative minds of the past. Whether improving on a successful concept or salvaging a bright spot from a commercial failure, the innovation process transcends the people in the room to evolve our communal experience. Every idea, from every time, can be broken down into parts. When we reconfigure those parts, we benefit from all the research and inspiration that came before us.
Incremental innovation even brings end users into the fold. Creating something new from familiar ideas makes users more comfortable and therefore accelerates adoption. Consumers can engage with the product or service more easily because they have an existing frame of reference. As a result, companies, particularly in technology through things like beta programs, can actively collaborate with end users to bring something of value to the market.
While innovation often looks like the result of blue-sky inspiration, the reality is more deeply rooted in focused, disciplined efforts. Innovation is a creative process, but it shouldn’t rely on random strokes of genius. By combining previously successful concepts in creative and unique ways, organizations can make innovation more predictable, effective, and oriented to real business results.