Innovation is the process of taking an idea and putting it into practice. Creativity, on the other hand, is what you do in your head to generate the idea, an idea that meets three criteria. An innovative idea must be new, useful, and surprising.
New means that no one else has done it before. Useful means that it delivers some new value for you or your customers. And surprising? It means that the market will be delighted with your latest innovation.
Most people think the way you create an idea is to start with a well formed problem and then brainstorm a solution to it. What if you turned that around 180 degrees - It sounds counterintuitive, but you really can innovate by starting with a solution and then work backwards to the problem. In the Systematic Inventive Thinking method, we call it the Function Follows Form principle. Here’s how it works.
First, you start with an existing situation. That situation can be a product. It can be a service, or perhaps a process. You take that item and you make a list of its components and attributes. Then, you apply one of the five thinking tools - They’re called Subtraction, Division, Multiplication, Task Unification, and Attribute Dependency. I know some of these sound mathematical, but they’re really not as you’ll see when you start applying them.
When you apply one of the five tools to the existing situation, you artificially change it. It morphs into something that, at first, might seem really weird or absurd. That’s perfectly normal. In fact, as you get more comfortable with this method, you’ll come to expect it. We consider this strange thing a Virtual Product. It doesn't really exist except in one place – right up here in your mind.
This step is really important. Take your time. You have to mentally define and visualize the virtual product. I like to close my eyes at this step and mentally see an image of the item once it’s be manipulated. As you practice the method more, this will get a lot easier.
At this next stage, you ask yourself two questions, and you do it in this specific order. First question is, should we do it? Does this new configuration create any advantage or solve some problem? Is there a target audience who would find this beneficial? Does it deliver an unmet need? We call this step the market filter. It’s a filter because if you cannot identify even the tiniest benefit at this step, you throw the concept out the window. You don’t waste anymore time on it. This is very different than other ideation techniques like Brainstorming where “there’s no bad idea.” Trust me! There are plenty of bad ideas, and if you realize one here, you eject it and you go back and re-apply the tool to generate a different concept.
If you do identify some benefit, then and only then do you ask yourself the second question: Can we do it? Do we have the technical know-how to make this concept? Is it feasible? Do we have the intellectual property? Are there regulatory or legal barriers? This step is the Implementation Filter, because, once again, if you have a great idea in theory but you have no way to make it, don't waste anymore time on it.
If you pass through both filters, you move to the Adaptations step where you allow yourself some degree of freedom to modify the concept to make it even stronger and deliver even more value. You may have to iterate through these steps several times before you end up with what I would consider an idea.
The Principle of Function Follows Form - innovating from the Solution to the Problem.
Perhaps the most important role of the innovation leader is creating a competent team. For that reason alone, it’s one of the most challenging. It’s a constant fight for talent. You may have the best products and services in the market, but without a strong, talented marketing team behind them, you’ll start losing ground to the competition.
Building a competent team begins with recruiting and hiring the right people. But it takes much more than just telling your human resources department to go fill open slots. Top innovation leaders get actively involved. When is the best time to recruit marketing people? All the time! What I mean by that is you should think of recruiting as an ongoing activity. You need a pipeline of potential marketers ready to step in when a position opens up.
When I hire innovation team member, I always look for certain characteristics beyond just job experience and track record. I look for people who are competitive by nature, who have a high tolerance for ambiguity, who are great at networking, and who have a good head for numbers. Creating new products and services is a cash generating activity, so you’ve got to have solid financial skills.
Notice I didn’t mention specific commercial skills like branding or marketing research. That’s because innovation can be learned like any skill. You, as the marketing leader, need to establish a strong, well-defined training and development program for your entire organization. Be sure to make it an annual, on-going activity, not just a one time event. Training is an investment. For some examples, check out my other fundamentals courses on marketing, innovation, and branding. They’ll give you a good head start.
Innovators like to perform at high levels, but they have to be motivated. You, as the innovation leader, play the key role in doing that. Innovators are at their best when they feel a sense of purpose. They have to feel good that the products and services they put into the marketplace are valued by their customers. Innovators need to feel appreciated for the work they do and the risks they take. And they need to be rewarded and recognized for their accomplishments.
Be sure to use a mix of both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, and do it throughout the year, not just at the annual meeting. Now here’s a tip. A great way to recognize innovators is to have one of your key customers present an award in front of their peers. That really ties it all together - a sense of purpose, a sense of appreciation, and a sense of recognition.
Creating a competent teams means getting the right talent, but also dealing with under performers. The mistake you can make is thinking that just hiring a few superstars will make up for the weaker talent. Just the opposite will occur. The superstars will get frustrated, demotivated, and they’ll eventually leave if they don’t think you’re dealing with the poor performers.
Your under performers either lack the skill to do the job or the will to do it. You have to have clear conversations with them to understand why they’re not performing, then set clear expectations and deadlines when they need to turn things around. If they don’t improve, they’re a liability to you and your team. You’ll lose credibility inside and outside the department if you don’t take action.
So take a look at your talent pool. Understand your team’s strengths and weakness, then put the right hiring, training, and motivational programs in place to keep upgrading your team year after year. That way, you’ll keep winning the fight for talent.