Today’s business world revolves around innovation: innovative products, innovative client experiences, innovative cultures. The list goes on and on. There seems to be a direct correlation between true “innovation” and a wildly successful product and/or company, even if it is hard to spot. But what is innovation really? And how do you create and sustain it? I’m not sure I have the answer, but I do want to share a few observations and practices that have been helpful to me and my teams over the past 20 years.
Innovation in Business: #1 “The answer isn’t in the building.”
Years ago, in an ordinary meeting, an ordinary person asked an ordinary question, and someone extraordinarily responded, “The answer isn’t in the building.” I wrote that down and have been saying it ever since. When it comes to strategy work, innovation, understanding market needs, etc., the answer is often found externally. Knowing your business, operations, and internal capabilities are important, but when it comes to developing strategy, I like to set that aside and take time to think about the challenge or market purely from the client’s point of view. Then get out and seek feedback from as many sources as possible. Including people you know well is a great way to start, but be sure to get feedback from a diverse audience, not just those that you have a relationship with or think are in your target market.
Innovation in Business: #2 “Know the value you are creating and why it is important.”
Understanding what features are valuable to your target market is important and helps to ensure product-market fit. But when you are focusing on the future, I find it helpful to think about how the new product will change the behaviors or lives of the people that will use it. Having an opinion on the value your product will create and why it is important, does two things: 1) it shows you have an understanding of your target users (or don’t) and 2) it engages a conversation. Some people will agree with you and others won’t. A good trick on this is to ask a follow up question after you pitch your value. Something like — “If we deliver on our vision, how would it change what you do today? What else would we need to provide to maximize the experience for you?” Some of the best entrepreneurs I have worked with are maniacally focused on this, engaging heated debates with potential users on the experience and ultimate outcomes. These are awesome, and for me, tend to lead to the breakthroughs that create amazing products and services. Keep asking “why” and “what” questions.
Innovation in Business: #3 “Strategy is a process and a way of thinking, not a meeting, document, or conference.”
Strategy is something I’ve always been drawn to. I love thinking about game-changing ideas and mapping out how to achieve them. Over my years of experimenting, reading countless articles, and making lots of mistakes, I’ve come to appreciate that “strategy” is a mindset. It’s a process. There are plenty of tools that can help visualize strategy, Simon Wardley’s maps are one of my favorites, but I don’t like to think of strategy as one stagnant thing. I often hear business leaders, particularly when faced with a serious external threat, say things like “Once we update our strategy, we will start winning again.” Or, “We must not have a strategy on <insert failing part of the business>.” Recognizing that there is a challenge, or a new unmet opportunity, is a great first step and a trigger to engage in an ongoing strategic process.
Seek as much data as you can. Form a hypothesis and update the value your products create. Get out of the building and seek feedback. Take action! Once your team has more points of input, then you can work to align your executive team, or those that need to know, on the change in your strategy. At that point, “How do I update my strategy?” really means, “How do I communicate the opportunity, the challenge, what I know, and what we are doing to address it?”
Building great products that clients love is hard. It’s also fun and addictive. Iterate often and remember, the answer may not be in the building.