WILLIAMS: How to make your firm truly innovative

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williams-jason-innovation-16.jpgThe book on how to innovate? It’s been written … again and again and again. “The Innovator’s Solution” (Clayton Christensen), “Innovation and Entrepreneurship” (Peter Drucker) or “The Art of Innovation” (Tom Kelley) are just a few examples. An online search for “how to make your company innovative” generates over 300 million results.

Turns out, there is no shortage of strategies for innovation. In fact, if you ask 100 people how to innovate, you are almost guaranteed one hundred different answers.

Quite simply, innovation is not that simple. Or is it? There might be countless processes and tools that help companies innovate, but there are also characteristics and mind-sets would-be innovators can adopt to be truly innovative. What is honored in a company will be cultivated there, regardless of which strategy the company decides to implement.

Be open to and ready for change. Innovation requires it. Innosight’s Scott D. Anthony defines innovation as “something different that has impact.” The key here is “something different.” Before companies can successfully travel down the path of innovation, they must decide ahead of time that change will be accepted and even encouraged. This might certainly mean different products and services, but it could also mean different business models, organizational structures and work habits.

Be willing to take risks. One of the biggest barriers to innovation is aversion to risk. This starts at the top. Nothing stops innovation faster than the executive kill card. “Nobody ever died of discomfort, yet living in the name of comfort has killed more ideas, more opportunities, more actions, and more growth than everything else combined,” warns author T. Harv Eker. Innovation and risk-taking go hand-in-hand. Know that going in.

The right people are more important than the right skills. Innovation is a human-driven activity. The skill sets to successfully innovate can be taught, developed, acquired and hired, but the right people will make all the difference. Companies looking to innovate should bring people into the process who are open-minded, passionate, adaptable and not afraid to take risks.

Be open-minded. The world is a laboratory of ideas. Innovation doesn’t happen when we withdraw from the world, but rather when we engage with it. Successful innovators almost always take an external viewpoint that draws inspiration from sources outside their office walls. Network in other industries, read newsletters and publications from another discipline, travel, or have lunch with another department. There are many ways to connect outside the box, but curiosity is always required.

“The Consumer is Boss” was A.G. Lafley’s mantra when he was revitalizing the consumer products giant Procter & Gamble in the early 2000s. Successful companies usually take this customer-first perspective. Make sure your organization is grounded in what the market wants, not what you want. Before you can start to innovate, your company must learn to listen to customers, observe users in the field, and understand what your target audience needs.

Innovation is an iterative process. You can create a detailed plan for how to innovate, but these strategies rarely survive their first contact with the market. “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face,” said boxer Mike Tyson. Success comes when you learn to adapt. It is more important to have the right people and mind-sets in place than to have a perfectly crafted plan.

Ultimately, innovation is more about mind-set than skill set. But don’t be fooled. Innovation isn’t easy. Be prepared to roll up your sleeves. Legendary management consultant Peter Drucker provides the best summary in his classic article “The Discipline of Innovation. “In innovation, there is talent, there is ingenuity, and there is knowledge. But when it is said and done, what innovation requires is hard, focused, purposeful work.”•

Williams is executive director of Centric, an Indianapolis-based innovation think tank.

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