The “What’s innovative?” Debate: Try using First, Best, and Only

(this post first appeared on The Design Gym blog)

Innovation is the currency of business strategy, models, and management, yet the term has become ubiquitous to the point where it oftentimes feels meaningless or inauthentic to both employees and customers. People are dubious around its use because best practice or mere improvements have become supplanted as “innovations.” Too many things are being mistaken as innovative nowadays, as companies strive to strengthen their position in the market and create value. How can we tell whether or not processes or creations are innovative?

To avoid the snake oil sales trap of ideas, services, or products that aren’t actually innovative, I’ve started using a simple strategy I call First, Best, and Only. This rule of thumb quickly squelches claims and shines light on true innovations versus good practices. I’ve been using it at my organization as an effective tool for flipping the “aha” switch on and bringing about universal understanding.

After all, half the battle with delivering and measuring innovation is agreeing upon what is innovative and what’s not.

Framing Innovation

How do we know when something is innovative versus a new, different, better, or best practice? Innovation is the execution of ideas (big and small) that are novel, unique, or haven’t been tried before, and it can apply to anything from products and processes to systems and experiences. In products, there are tangible features to compare, but in systems or services it can be fuzzier.

Companies have a hard time defining what innovation means for them. Innovation is often malleable and context driven. In workplaces where innovation is set as a goal or vision, I’ve seen employees crave a concrete, crystal clear definition from leadership to use as a measuring stick. “Tell us what you mean,” they implore.

When employees lack universal understanding around innovation, debates and skepticism ensues. This is where firsts, bests, and onlys come into play. The way to resolve unclarity is to show models, and the way we find models of innovation is to point to the firsts, bests, and onlys within our organization.

Moreover, in a world where news cycles, case studies, and conferences are devoted to disruptive innovation, it’s easy to forget that the majority of innovation is small and incremental.

Quick Review of the Innovation Continuum

At one end of the spectrum, innovation is undeniable. It is breakthrough and disruptive ideas that create new markets and displace the status quo. The Ubers, Airbnbs, Apples, and Amazons of the world fall into this category. However, only a small percentage of ideas are disruptive innovations.

Soren Kaplan’s Innovation Continuum

At the other end of the spectrum, innovation is almost imperceptible — more of an undercurrent. It is the incremental evolution of an idea from one form to another. Think pagers to bulky phones to flip phones. Cellphone technology occurred as a progression of successive changes built upon older generations that eventually enabled an entirely new kind of product. This type of innovation doesn’t happen overnight because it’s slow and steady. Importantly, it isn’t just additional features, it’s a series of small steps and tiny risks that haven’t been tried before or tried in that combination before.

It’s important to call attention to incremental innovations, disruptive innovations, or anything in between because firsts, bests, and onlys can be found at all levels. How do we find these in our organizations? I’ll describe the background of how I discovered this strategy and an overview of how it works.

Origin of First, Best, and Only

I discovered the First, Best, and Only strategy when I was sitting through a presentation by a consultant who was a Director of Development. (Yes, we were talking about fundraising not innovation.) I was in a room full of senior staff, and the consultant asked us to reflect upon what made our organization unique. “When you approach donors,” she asked, “what do you tell them makes this organization great?” People popcorned out standard facts and figures, things you see on our website and in our brochures, and she kindly listed them on the whiteboard.

As we watched and read the list, it was noticeable that we were struggling to come up with things. Not only were we weak in calling out our greatest strengths, but the items we listed didn’t sound too different from those of our competitors. Our list was lackluster and obviously didn’t reflect our greatness.

She prodded us to continue, “C’mon, where are you the first, best, or only at something?” and with that remark, the room lit up. People started calling out amazing discoveries, inventions, programs, and other accolades. Not the normal spiel. Suddenly, our list had teeth. It was clear what made us stand out from the crowd. In the process, I was surprised by how much I was learning about our organization, and I felt invigorated.

Weeks later, I was facilitating a meeting, and I was struggling to extract stories of innovation from my colleagues for a new marketing campaign. However, their suggestions didn’t showcase how our organization was more unique than others in our field. They were interesting stories with heartwarming messages, but they didn’t scream innovation. As a facilitator, I could tell I couldn’t push the brainstorming any further with prompts like “tell me something that’s truly innovative, different, or unique.” Out of the blue I blurted, “What about instances where we’ve been first, best, or only at something?” From that moment, the energy shifted — a new layer of stories was unblocked, and those were truly innovative.

Since then, I’ve noticed strong results from the First, Best, and Only strategy because it resonates. It’s easy to understand, and people quickly digest it as if being struck by lightning. Hence, my recommendation is to translate the abstractness of innovation into three ingredients: Firsts, bests, and onlys. These words help draw out innovation stories you may not have thought about in terms of your company’s greatest successes and areas of impact.

In fact, until I used First, Best, and Only with my coworkers, they didn’t even realize things they were already doing were innovative. In one case, our purchasing department realized they were the first department to implement Docusign in order to speed up and streamline processing. The adoption of this tool spread across the organization and became embedded in daily business. Now, the purchasing department gets to take credit for this internal innovation they brought to the organization.

How to use First, Best, and Only

What if I think a new meeting format is innovative because I’ve never seen it done that way before, but you say it’s not innovative because your last five employers ran meetings that way. Am I wrong? Are you right? Can we both be right?

In the schema of First, Best, and Only, if the meeting format is being used for the first time by that company, then it’s a “first,” and it’s innovative in that regard, and I’m right. Although, if other companies already do it that way, then it’s not a first, and it would not be considered innovative, and you’re right. Notice that the key criteria here for innovation is being first, therefore the metric in this situation is against internal or external innovation firsts. Is this a first for the company or a first for the marketplace? This is an important distinction because firsts, bests, and onlys can be perceived on many levels and throughout the innovation continuum.

If something is the first, the best (or one of the top 10 or top 20), or the only, then there’s a high probability that it’s innovative since, by definition, innovations are novelties or one-(or a few)-of-a-kind. This protocol can be applied to both internal or external innovations, as well as to incremental through disruptive innovations.

The strategy is fairly self-explanatory. Play around with the scope of comparison. For instance, are you comparing yourself to other departments, others in your industry, within a specific geographic region, or within a certain period of time? Define your filters to get clarity of scope. I recommend that you start wide (on a national or international scale), and then apply filters to find other kinds of innovation examples within your company.

To start, simply ask: “Where are we the first, best, or only?” You can do one word at a time, or ask for all three at once, and then let them trickle in randomly. These can be lists on three separate sheets of paper or in three columns on a page. The process is up to you.

Clarifying Information and Tips

Firsts: These are time-based. The most obvious are first to market, but it can also be when your first website went live or the release of your first newsletter. It’s easiest to track these down by looking at historical records, archives, institutional artifacts, or interviews with current or former employees.

Bests: These can be drawn from rankings or reports. It’s awesome to be number 1 or number 2, but what does “best” means to your organization? Maybe being in the top 10 is good enough, or even top 20 depending on how steep your competition is.

Onlys: These are where you’re one-of-a-kind. You are the only one creating, serving, or doing this thing. It could be the only one in your market or industry, or it could mean in the state, country, or world.

This is not a perfect strategy for finding innovation, but I believe it does an incredible job at helping us ascertain bright spots that may not have jumped out on the first pass. And it transforms how people think about the question “what’s innovative?” If anything, I hope that by using this strategy, it can help alleviate tensions around defining and identifying innovations. Please share your suggestions so we can learn more about this strategy together.

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