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One of the things I hear leaders talking about more and more these days is innovation. Good thing, because it’s must-have stuff in today’s rapidly evolving business environment. If you’re not innovating, you risk falling behind.

Innovation keeps you in the game. And while we all boldly claim we buy into that thinking, in the back of our minds we’re asking ourselves: “How in the world can we get it done?” Starting new things sounds exciting, but it also sounds daunting and pricey. Yet it doesn’t have to be either.

As you set goals and make resolutions this new year, I’d like you to think about ways you can make innovation happen in your business. Here are a few practical ways we’ve tried to stay at least a half-step ahead of the changes in our business, and how we have tried to empower our team to be more innovative.

First, let’s get past the many excuses we don’t innovate:

  • Time and money – It seems like it takes too much of both.
  • Insular thinking – Am I only talking to those who think like I do?
  • Arrogance – I tell myself I already know what’s best and don’t need to try new things.
  • Commitment to the past – We’re pretty happy with things just like they are, (and, truth be told, I’m not willing to make change that’s needed to move ahead).
  • Fear of failing – What if I try and fail?…

Innovation can seem complex and risky. But at its core it’s quite simple: Innovation is about turning ideas into money. And when it’s done well it definitely pays.

Coming up with ideas is easy. The hard part is figuring out which ones to bring to life. Practical innovation is the key. You must take smart risk when you innovate to increase your chances of success. How?

Innovation mindset

Start by getting your mind right about innovation. Recognize it starts at the top –with you. I know it’s my job as a leader to think about what’s possible, not what is. When I get too pulled into the business, I can’t see over the next horizon.

To be more innovative, you must change some of the ways you think today. Don’t succumb to confirmation bias, which is reading and listening to things that simply affirm what you’re currently doing. Some of the best ideas come from stimulation we have in other parts of our lives, so spend time doing other things beyond work. For me, that’s running, riding a motorcycle, photography – really creative activities that free my mind from concerns and open my thinking to possibilities.

Another way to change how you think is by inviting people who bring unique perspectives and backgrounds to the conversation. Better leaders try to see things from a broad point of view. I love this quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The mark of a superior intellect is to hold two conflicting thoughts and not be paralyzed.” It reminds me not to be afraid of seeking out different ideas but be willing to live in the tension and roll up my sleeves to sort through them and find a way forward.

You can also simply look to other industries for inspiration. A lot of innovation isn’t radically new thinking; it’s taking things from other industries and applying them where you are. This is the “wisdom of objective thinkers,” who can help you see things in a new way.

Innovation process

Next, think about how you innovate. You don’t have to know what the innovation will be, you just have to know how to get to an idea. It will help you and your team to have a process of some kind to follow. A few suggestions:

Start by asking “How might we?…” questions. While I’m a big fan of leading through asking rather than always telling, I particularly like this one. Warren Berger developed this simple but powerful approach for creative problem-solving. You can open your mind to possibilities by starting the conversation in this way. The “how” part assumes there are solutions out there, and it gives creative confidence to the group – yes, we can find an answer. “Might” says we can put ideas out there that might/might not work, but either is okay when we are in brainstorming mode. And of course the “we” is that we are going to figure it out together.

A common design model used by innovators across many industries is the Double Diamond, developed by the Design Council. There are four steps — Discover, define, develop, deliver. The process can loop back around again to lead continuous improvement. The hardest part? Getting your team to “turn the corner” — to stop brainstorming and start refining and deciding on the final product.

An important step in the design process is experimentation. Or basically running a “test and learn” model, which are simply parallel pilots of your most viable options. This approach is far better than the funnel model, where you have 100 ideas that you narrow down to 1, but then after spending time and money on it, you find out it doesn’t really work. Better to have multiple initiatives underway simultaneously, culling those that are not working and leaning in to those getting traction. A guiding belief at IDEO is “Enlightened trial and error outperforms the planning of flawless intellects.” Couldn’t agree more.

You can also establish a “labs” initiative in-house, or work closely with a local accelerator or start-up incubator to get access to entrepreneurs who are creating new things or who can help you drive new ideas forward. Join their board, volunteer as a mentor for young entrepreneurs. THIS IS KEY – engage with others who are thinking about and trying new things. If it’s particularly promising, you can acquire the company as well as the talent.

Finally, start out with small innovation projects that have a chance to pay off early — small-scale, quick payback projects. Get the early wins. They will help build the confidence, change the culture and over time create a larger and longer-lasting impact.

Challenge your team to think not just about starting up new products and services, but innovating the way you do business, too. Ask some questions:

  • How is our billing process – user-friendly and clear, or cumbersome and confusing?
  • Are we good at communicating regularly with our clients and in the way they want to be connected to us?
  • Is our organizational structure serving us well, or we need a different model?

These can be incredibly powerful innovations that could pay off faster and better than adding a new product offering.

Good luck, and here’s to 2018 being the year you make practical innovation pay off!




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