Innovation You

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Innovation is different from everything you do as a leader.

Innovation is different from everything you do as a leader in three distinct ways. First, innovation happens in the future for which you currently have no data. In fact, one of the most common forms of resistance to innovation is excessive data collection, because it stops your company from taking purposeful action. Second, innovation is a time-based form of value. That is, it has a shelf life and goes sour like milk. So innovation has to happen within a specific window of opportunity. Third, innovation happens in cycles; not straight lines. Revolutionary innovations seldom occur in good times because the relative risk is high and the reward low. In a down economy, innovation isn’t your best friend—it’s your only friend.

Given the temporary, emergent and cyclical nature of innovation, you will have forgo many of your control-based management practices to give your business the freedom it needs to grow. While quality and efficiency result from eliminating variation, innovation and new market growth come from adding it. So how do you maintain control of your business and recreate it at the same time? You use the unique dynamics of innovation to your advantage.

Creativizing is a made-up word like Martinizing. It means the process of adding little bits of creativity to the most ordinary of tasks to make them extraordinary. This approach espouses that innovation is basically about getting everyone to do small things radically differently to create momentum. There are four simple steps to creativizing your business:

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1. Set High Quality Targets

Many leaders make the mistake of aiming too high or too low when it comes to setting an innovation target. The key is to get the speed and magnitude of your desired result right. It all comes down to two questions: How much innovation? How fast? A high quality target should contain three points of view: 1). Emerging market opportunities, 2). Realistic assessment of your capabilities, and 3). Authentic expression of your level of ambition. Don’t worry about the numbers. They don’t inspire. Talk in terms of visions, metaphors and stories.

2. Enlist Deep & Diverse Domain Expertise

Creating a new therapy for a dreaded disease, building an eco-tech engine for a new type of aircraft or writing an app for the latest tablet with its funky operating system all require a virtuoso team that really knows its stuff. This doesn’t mean that they all have advanced degrees but it does mean that they are highly practiced. The key here is to intentionally create constructive conflict. Alignment is overrated. The positive tension between domain experts with different points of view produces hybrid and breakthrough solutions.

3. Take Multiple Shots on Goal

Watch a bench scientist or a successful venture capitalist and you will notice that they don’t avoid the failure cycle—they accelerate it. They manage their project portfolios to fail early, often and under the radar. While this sounds like risky behavior it’s actually the opposite. By widening the number of projects they undertake and minimizing the amount of time and resource they spend on each they quickly learn what works and doesn’t, and most importantly, why. Think of it like fishing. At first you throw a lot of different lures and bait into the water to learn what the fish are biting. Once you know, you adjust your approach. So hedge first and optimize later.

4. Learn from Experience and Experiments

Failure is only valuable if get smarter from the experience. Sit down with your team for an after action review to deconstruct and reconstruct your projects. This requires absolute honesty. From this discussion divine some simple rules of thumb so that going forward these key learnings will help all your employees avoid the mistakes and adopt best practices. These practices adjusted appropriately will help make innovation happen everywhere, every day.

Each cycle gives way to a new one but now with new knowledge and capabilities gained through real experiences to perpetually recreate your company and sustain its growth. Be sure to leave room for the stuff you don’t know now because innovation requires that we make it up as we go along.

Jeff DeGraff, Ph.D., is a professor at University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.

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