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Great Organizations | Great Leaders

Breaking Away from the “Big Idea” Mindset

Innovation probably isn’t what you think. Here’s the real truth.
Breaking Away from the “Big Idea” Mindset

You’ve heard the calls: Innovate or die. Global competition demands that every organization now become an innovative organization. What got you this far won’t take you to the next level. The message is loud and clear that innovation has never been more important.

In DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2011 fostering innovation was identified as one of the top-three critical leadership skills needed in the future. It had never ranked that high in past years, and it jumped the highest number of places of any skill on the list.

No doubt innovation is a business imperative and a critical competitive differentiator. But that’s not the only reason to innovate. When organizations embrace the new and different, and strive to make their products, services, or processes better, their people are more involved, energized, and engaged. As innovation has become an increasingly high priority for organizations and their leaders looking to create sustainable market value, the rush to innovate is often accompanied by misconceptions. In researching and designing our Business Impact Leadership®: Mid-Level Series, we sought out many different perspectives and approaches, including expertise from the LUMA Institute, a leading educational institute devoted to innovation. In the process, we gained a realistic sense for what it really takes for leaders to create the conditions to make innovation happen.

Let’s look at some of the most common misconceptions, the real truths, and what you need to do to drive innovation in your organization.

Misconception: Innovation is all about coming up with The Big Idea.

The Truth: Innovation is also about lots of little ideas.

When you think of innovation, you may envision a device as influential as the Apple iPad or as revolutionary as Henry Ford’s assembly line approach to manufacturing— both exceptional examples of innovation born of big ideas. While they are the ones with the highest payoff, big ideas often emerge from the process of generating and evaluating many little ideas. As Peter Sims writes in Little Bets, his influential book on innovation, “Most successful entrepreneurs don’t begin with brilliant ideas—they discover them.”

Innovation isn’t just the domain of entrepreneurs, of course. But Sims’ point applies to everyone engaging in innovation. The advantage of “small bets” taken through a cyclical process of testing, learning, and testing again is that they provide quick, fast, and low-cost avenues to useful information. By making many small bets, planting numerous seeds, and frequently following promising ideas to dead-ends—you move closer to discovering the big and brilliant ideas that will make a difference.

In short, when it comes to generating ideas, quantity is more important than quality. That’s because quantity is a prerequisite for quality.

Misconception: Innovation is a creative process.

The Truth: Innovation is also about execution.

Many people at different times actually came up with the idea for the Post-it note. But none of them had anywhere to write it down. This oft-repeated joke about the creation of the successful “sticky note” holds a kernel of truth about the importance of taking action on ideas. While it’s one thing to come up with ideas, it’s quite another to actually evaluate and prioritize them, and set them in motion.

The biggest innovation mistake organizations make is thinking of creation and execution as two separate sets of activities to be performed in sequence over time: First, design and develop a new solution then bring it to market. The problem with this approach is that execution can become more complex, difficult, and expensive than necessary. Instead, execution should be considered early in the process. Early-stage discussions about potential execution difficulties not only help in identifying the best solution, but they also surface execution challenges that leaders can take action to address.

Misconception: Incremental innovations aren’t worthwhile.

The Truth: Innovations that are small in scale or limited in scope are valuable.

While many small ideas are often required to come up with a big idea, those little ideas can have value in and of themselves. Innovations don’t have to be breakthrough, disruptive, or radical. They can also be evolutionary instead of revolutionary. For instance, think of Six Sigma efforts in manufacturing, which often produce incremental—and innovative— solutions that add value. What’s more, internal processes or policies can be targeted for innovation just the same as products and services. Innovation is best viewed as an organizational behavior that can be applied to any product, process, or activity. It begins with the premise that anything your organization does can be done better!

Misconception: Innovation is about coming up with a better answer.

The Truth: Innovation is about asking better questions.

Innovation is a creative problem-solving process that requires seeing problems from the right point of view. That means gaining the perspective of users or stakeholders—those for whom the product, solution, or new process is designed.

It sounds obvious, but developing the required level of empathy before committing to a solution is a step that too often gets skipped in the rush to implement ideas. You have to ask the right questions in order to come up with the best solution. As Sims writes in Little Bets, “Questions are the new answers.” For leaders and team members engaged in innovation, a healthy and humble sense of curiosity is a must.

Misconception: An innovation has to be successful to be valuable.

The Truth: Innovation doesn’t happen without failure.

When you innovate, you may fail. The most successful and innovative organizations experience failure before success. The iPad wasn’t Apple’s first attempt at a tablet computer. In the 1990s Apple introduced a tablet computer call Newton. The product never found a sizable market and proved to be a tremendous failure, but lessons learned from that experience informed the development of the iPad more than a decade later. Failure is a necessity for gathering information and learning. What many leading innovators understand is that the faster you fail, the faster you learn. Thomas Edison, one of history’s greatest innovators, said it best: “If I find ten thousand ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is just one more step forward.”

Misconception: Innovation only happens in “innovative” organizations.

The Truth: Innovation can happen anywhere.

No organization—or team—is too conservative, too resourcestrapped, or, for that matter, too successful to innovate. Even organizations in industries such as financial services, whose success depends upon mitigating risk, can and must innovate to stay competitive. And while a culture that cultivates innovation is always a plus, leaders play a larger role in driving innovation than many realize. They provide the tools, resources, and know-how necessary to promote innovations that customers or internal stakeholders will value. In leading their teams they also need to inspire curiosity, challenge current perspectives, create freedom, and drive discipline. When they do, their team members are more likely to question assumptions, think outside the box, and experiment—the things that lead to innovation.

Innovation is most effective when it’s practiced on an ongoing basis. That’s how an innovation culture emerges. But most important, it establishes an ongoing stream of new ideas and positive energy—both of which are needed to ensure differentiation and market value.

Ellie Hall is an executive consultant in DDI’s executive solutions group.

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