Do You Have What It Takes To Innovate?

“Innovators” are a dime a dozen these days, yet most of what passes for innovation couldn’t be farther from it. And there’s a very simple reason for that:

Innovation NEVER happens in a vacuum.

Most of what we hear praised as innovative is actually just another iteration of the same fundamental thing. It may alter the form of the thing, but never the function. Authentic innovation requires a retooling and rethinking of the entire thing, whether the “thing” is a process or a product.

Because of this need to change the underlying substance of your product or process, innovation MUST be a collaborative, group effort. It requires many minds to truly innovate.

Sometimes, though, even the most intelligent collection of minds are incapable of being innovative. Again, there is one simple reason for this, too:

Innovation is not a methodology for improvement.

Let me explain: you can’t take an existing product or process, “do some innovation” on it, and come out with a better product. Improving a product or process is not innovative. To innovate, you have to start from a completely blank slate.

To give an example, let’s take a look at what happened in 1997 when Steve Jobs returned to Apple. He didn’t change the products the company was putting out…he added a completely new product. As Simon Sinek says in his great TED talk: when Apple came out with the iPod the prevailing wisdom at the time was “who would buy an MP3 player from a computer company?” But that wasn’t the innovative idea behind Jobs’ vision for Apple. Jobs and his team (again, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum…) realigned Apple’s entire strategic positioning. As Sinek says again, Apple is no longer a What company (computers) they are a Why company.

So what can we learn from this example that we can immediately apply to our leadership and management styles? How can we maintain a more innovative mindset? Here’s three ways:

Don’t be afraid

Innovation (true innovation) is risky and uncertain. If you already know the outcome of the change you’re proposing, sorry, that’s not innovative. An innovative mindset requires risk.

Don’t stop short

Authentic innovation doesn’t make an existing product or process better. It throws out the rule book and looks at the very basic foundation of that product or process. It’s not innovative to say “well if we make our product a little cheaper, more people will buy it.” It’s innovative to say “is this product or process meeting our customers’ needs in the best way possible, and if not, what do we need to put in place to meet their needs?” Too much of what passes for innovation these days stops short of really asking those hard (and expensive) questions.

Don’t do it alone

Innovation is collaborative. And it is a long, sometimes painful process. Without a network, a group, a tribe to tackle the problems together not only will you miss out on the most truly innovative thinking, but you will be more likely to fail at making any improvement at all.

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