Insights | By Howard Tiersky

3 Key Ingredients to Ignite Innovation

The team at FROM has worked with dozens and dozens of companies to create innovative new products, processes, and channels to connect with customers

The team at FROM has worked with dozens and dozens of companies to create innovative new products, processes, and channels to connect with customers. It's very rewarding work for many reasons, one of which is the incredible people we get to work with at our clients. In fact, we find over and over that our clients have teams with tremendous knowledge, vision, and passion to serve their customers. And yet, it can sometimes take an outside force (like us) to unleash their full creative potential or to catalyze the action need to move an idea forward along the pathway of value. Why is that?

Having observed many companies go through transformations that yielded massively innovative thinking and action from teams that were previously struggling, the difference usually boils down to something that had been missing in the company's culture, processes, or environment. But what?

Consider this analogy. To create fire you must have three key ingredients: 

  1. Some type of fuel
  2. Oxygen
  3. A spark or source of heat to start the reaction. 

These ingredients are all necessary for the reaction to occur. If any is missing, nothing happens. The dormant potential is not realized. 

It's a similar pattern with sparking innovation. There are three key ingredients. When these are present, amazing things can happen. And when any is missing, there's no reward structure or corporate mandate that can create the magic.

The human mind is an incredible problem-solving machine, and it works best when given a very clear and precise goal.

1. Focused Objective

The first ingredient is a Focused Objective. This is the SPARK of innovation. The human mind is an incredible problem-solving machine, and it works best when given a very clear and precise goal. Defining the right objective that you want your innovation team to churn on is the first step in empowering them. If you want your team to create a more innovative doorknob, that's somewhat specific. However figuring out how to create a doorknob that looks like brass, lasts for at least 10 years with normal residential use, and can retail for no more than $19.99 is a much more specific objective. The brain is more resourceful when it really understands the target it is shooting for. 

If you want your team to create a more innovative doorknob, that's somewhat specific. However figuring out how to create a doorknob that looks like brass, lasts for at least 10 years with normal residential use and can retail for no more than $19.99 is a much more specific objective.

Where does such specificity come from?  We use a concept in our innovation framework that we call Cascading Innovation.   

  • It might have been a prior team's innovation output to figure out that a $19.99 "faux brass" doorknob is what the market wants. Their specific objective might have been to determine what gaps exist in the doorknob market where the company could generate at least $50M in incremental sales by 2014 through existing retail channels.  
  • That input might have come to them from yet another team whose focus was to figure out which market in residential hardware has the greatest potential for growth over the next 5 years, perhaps they concluded it was doorknobs.

Constraints

When articulating a focused objective, it is very important to clearly define the correct constraints.

On one hand, we want to drive innovation, and so we want to be careful not to state the objective or the problem too much in the terms of the current "legacy" solution to the problem. Henry Ford said, "If I'd asked people what they want, they'd have said a faster horse." So avoid defining the problem as "a faster horse" versus "a faster way to travel."

At the same time, all creativity exists within some kind of framework, whether it's the structure of a haiku poem or a painting created within a defined frame.

What's fabulous about clear constraints is that once all the constraints are clear, then we can tell the teams with confidence that any solution which solves the problem within the constraints is fair game, even if it looks nothing like what anybody expects. That is very liberating.

Henry Ford said "If I'd asked people what they want they'd have said a faster horse."

2. Information

The second ingredient to ignite innovation is Information. Relevant information is the FUEL of innovation.  Our doorknob team is hopefully populated with some individuals who have some of their own stored information in the form of personal experience in the doorknob biz.  But collecting the right additional information and making it easy for the team to organize and internalize it is key. Information might include: competitive examples of other low cost doorknobs which have or have not been successful; market research about consumer needs; materials prices for a variety of different low cost metals along with information about their durability. Figuring out the right information with which to FUEL your team will allow them to burn hotter and longer on the problem.

There are three ways to get the information to feed your team:

  1. The people you choose for the team bring different backgrounds and experience to the table.  On the projects on which we consult, significant thought goes into the right composition of the client's innovation team to bring different backgrounds, knowledge, personalities and perspective to bear.  
  2. Once assembled, each team member's individual knowledge will be an information resource to him/herself, as a member of the team. The team's collective knowledge will be a resource to the entire team if you structure the collaboration to foster knowledge sharing.
  3. Secondary research such as market studies, government statistics, materials analysis, etc can provide critical reference.  Gathering the full gamut of available information and structuring it so that it is easily digested and referenced can be a sizable undertaking, but is critical to giving the team both information that may yield flashes of valuable insight as well as the tools they need to evaluate and prioritize ideas as they are generated.
  4. Primary research that your team participates in, such as talking to customers and building and testing physical prototypes, is another way to get the information to fuel your team. There is no substitute for personal experience.

You can also think of two key "buckets" of information that together form the ideal fuel. 

1. Knowledge of the problem space

  • Who are the users for whom we are innovating?  What do we understand about their needs?
  • Has this problem been solved before or have prior attempts been made? What was the approach and what were the results?
  • How can a potential solution's effectiveness be measured? How will we know when the problem is solved?
  • Has anyone solved or attempted to solve a similar problem which may be instructive?

2. Knowledge of the resources that are available to create the solution

  • Details on the rules regarding any constraints that must be met for a successful approach (e.g. regulatory restrictions or distribution restrictions)
  • Specific characteristics of different materials or processes,  that either enable or hamper their use in particular ways
  • Information on new technologies that can be leveraged in the solution

There is a wonderful scene in Apollo 13 where the team has to figure out how to keep the astronauts alive using a clear and focused objective. 

There is a wonderful scene in Apollo 13 where the team has to figure out how to keep the astronauts alive until re-entry even though the Co2 "scrubbers" in the command module have failed, causing the air to become slowly poisoned. The leader of the Mission Control team tasked with solving this problem dumps onto the table all the "stuff" they have in the command module and tells the team "we have to figure out how to make this (the large square filters they have) fit into the hole for this (the smaller round filters that have failed) using nothing but this (the pile of miscellaneous stuff on the table which mirrors the available material in the command module).  Watch this one minute clip it's a great example of a clear focused objective with clear information about the resources available to solve the problem.

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3. Freedom

And so what is the OXYGEN we need to finish the recipe?  Freedom is the OXYGEN of innovation. What do we mean by freedom?  In daily "business as usual" there are a variety of things that hold us back — which suppress the natural release of our latent creativity just as lack of oxygen snuffs out a campfire. Here are a few of the barriers to freedom and how we overcome them.

  1. Fear. Fear of looking foolish and fear of political repercussions are the two greatest risks to innovation. These fears hold back new ideas and honest discourse regarding ideas that do come forth.  These are best overcome with culture. In our innovation workshops we stress rules such as "leave rank at the door," and highlight the value of bad ideas.  
  2. Patterns. We all have certain patterns we follow. Those patterns are the grooves in the road that make it hard to find a new path and they are the shackles that keep us from thinking freely. There are many ways to break patterns. Some techniques we use in our innovation frameworks and workshops include: working in a different type of workspace, music, toys, time compression, physical activity/games and mixing teams in unexpected ways.  
  3. Assumptions. People have assumptions about what can or can't be done, what the company will or won't allow, what the market will or won't accept. However most successful innovations break existing assumptions. One of the reasons its important to state the problem and its constraints with great care is that in doing so we let the innovation team know those are all the assumptions they should respect, anything else should be challenged.  We also conduct exercises specifically designed to remove assumptions. One great example is the "Google exercise." It works like this. People perceive Google as innovative.  So we tell people: "Google just bought your company, and they put their most innovative team on the problem. How would they solve it?"   (and it can work with Apple or Facebook as well).  This context puts people outside their normal assumptions about what is possible in their environment and even, strangely enough, frees them from their own limiting beliefs about their own imaginations. The team may come back and say, "Well the guys at Google would do this wild innovative thing, but that's the sort of thing we'd never come up with here at Acme corporation." Uh oh, tricked you! You just did. 
  4. Faith. The last component of freedom is faith. A lack of faith can stifle innovation. Teams must believe that solutions to the challenge exist and that they are more than capable of arriving at them.

So those are the three ingredients to ignite innovation: a clear set of objectives to spark the FIRE, a rich set of information to FUEL it, and an atmosphere of freedom acting as OXYGEN so the flame can breathe.