Tip 5: Is Innovation Perspiration or Inspiration?

InnovationThere is a belief that if you want to be good, I mean really good, at service delivery it is all about innovation.  The process by which you deliver things that your competition can’t even get close to.  Think of Amazon and the Kindle or the use of DNA finger printing by the police.  It is hard to disagree, particularly if you define innovation as the implementation of new ideas that make the customer happier.

There is another belief that innovation is all about creativity.  It is something that creative types do, something that you have to be very gifted to achieve.  Creativity is clearly part of the mix, but in reality it is only a very small part of it.  If you are hell bent on being a great innovator then most of what is required is just robust management.  Let me explain:

Stage one:  the innovation pipe line

Most organisations have an innovation pipeline, a mechanism that they use to manage the delivery of new projects; it probably feels a little like this:

Projects materialise from nowhere, if they are lucky they find a way into the project process and are assigned resources to make them a reality.  They then undergo a long and tortuous “development” process during which they may befall a number of mishaps:

  • Resources may be redeployed, all the effort invested to date has been wasted
  • Business case requirements change
  • Numerous “project hurdles” are thrown at the project team to control their activity
  • Some projects are developed as “homers” and go under the radar all together
  • Projects loose sponsorship and meander uncontrollably, or end up in dead ends but nobody kills them
  • Funding may be withdrawn at the last moment (or never actually exist)
  • Some “lucky” projects will get senior management help being forced into the pipeline at high speed and pressure
  • At the end of the development process large amounts of political heat are applied to get the project over the line as quickly as possible

How not to do it

A better way

If you want to improve innovation, the first job is to get your project funnel under control:

  • Create a register of projects, so that you know exactly what is going on
  • Have a clear mechanism for allocating resources, avoiding the temptation to take on just one more project
  • Apply straight forward simple rules so it is clear what a project needs to deliver before it leaves that “project phase” does it need a full business case developed?  Or are you just assessing technical feasibility?
  • Develop some stage gates that projects must pass through from one phase to the next to control the risk (but ensure that everybody knows that they are coming and what is required at them)
  • Fail fast, except that not all ideas are good ideas and that you should kill the weak projects before they have too much effort invested in them
  • Report progress; be clear what the risks and issues are.

None of this is particularly sexy or clever; it is simply good project management discipline.  But if you don’t do it your innovations won’t happen.  Your pipeline should be simple and straight forward and look a little more like this:

Development Funnel


Stage two: create spin off benefits

Once a project has been delivered most organisations go back to the front end of the funnel again and start to work on the next project.

This is a mistake, what they should do instead is look at the innovation they have just delivered and then work out every possible way that they can maximise their return on investment.  They have developed new ways of doing things, created intellectual capital and competitive advantage.  Now is a good time to milk that for all it is worth.

Let me give you an example.  A brewer had a problem.  They ran high speed bottling lines that filled bottles with beer and then put a metal cap on the top.  From time to time one of the bottles would chip and a sliver of glass would sink to the bottom of the beer bottle.

Glass in beer is not generally considered a good thing.

They put their best and brightest onto the problem and developed a machine to counteract the problem.  After the lid was put on each bottle was spun rapidly, by doing this any glass in the beer would settle in the middle and using a laser they could spot it and reject the bottle; a very clever solution to the problem.  However, the really clever thing was what they did next.  It is difficult to sell more beer with the slogan “glass free beer”, it provides no competitive advantage at all.  What the brewer did was patent their idea and then sell their machine to every other brewer in the country.  They could hardly say no.

Not invented here syndrome

In most organisations spin offs fail to fly.  There is real resistance, why would you use somebody else’s ideas?  How will that make you look good?  Not invented here syndrome is alive and well in most large organisations.

Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats ~ Howard Aiken

How do you create an environment that rewards spinning off ideas?  Do you have a management process for spotting the innovations that have happened across your organisation and spinning them out as hard and as fast as you possibly can?  If you don’t could you develop one?  It could include:

  • Appointing somebody specifically to identify and sponsor spin off projects
  • Arranging regular show and tell sessions
  • Asking for potential spin offs to be included in the business case for project funding
  • Providing an investment pot specifically for creating spin offs
  • Rewarding people for the best use of spin off ideas

What would work in your organisation?

Spin Off Projects

 Stage three:  work on the big things

Most innovation projects sort of materialise, somebody has a so so idea that solves a problem, it fills a budget gap, and then before you know it, it has a full head of steam.

The thing is, not all problems are equal.  Take this web site for example.  I have two problems, one is that the search button (pink thing top right of the screen) moves a bit from browser to browser.  A second problem is that I don’t have enough traffic to create a serious business.  Solving the second problem will buy me a villa overlooking the Mediterranean, solving the first problem will stop the search button from moving.  As I said, not all problems are equal.

Innovation is all about problem solving, so the thing that is fundamentally important is to know where the really big problems are that need to be fixed.  Do you have a really robust mechanism for analysing your business and defining the most important issues?  When was the last time your operations managers, marketers and accountants sat down and worked through what was really holding your business back?

If you can accurately pinpoint the issues and then concisely describe what needs to be done to resolve them then you are half way to improving the situation.

A problem well stated is a problem half solved ~ Charles F. Kettering

How do you start?

How do you work out what is really important?  There are a couple of blog posts that give a little more context:

If you search under Operations Analysis you will find many more ideas.

The important thing is to spend some time working through your business and identifying the biggest possibilities then creating a hopper of issues to work on, rather than just fire fighting and chasing down the current issue.

Big Problems

Stage four: find a creative solution

Once you have stated the big problems that need to be fixed the first question to ask is “Do I already have a solution to this problem?” “Have I invented something elsewhere in my business that will solve this for me?” (Remember the bit about spinning out the benefits?)

If you already have a solution that works now is the time to use it.

It is only now, that you need to get creative.  And even now there are some fairly formulaic behaviours that can be modeled to drive that creativity.  Here are a handful of techniques that you could use to start the inspiration flowing:

Search for insights

If you need to know about customer satisfaction, don’t stop at reading a Harvard Business Review article and doing some customer surveys, visit a 5 star hotel, talk to a Michelin star chef, talk to the staff at John Lewis, see if you can visit an Amazon distribution centre.  I have no idea what insights you will generate but you will certainly generate some.  There is a wide world out there.

Every idea is a juxtaposition. That’s it. A juxtaposition of existing concepts ~ Steven Grant

Suspend disbelief

Instead of evaluating why an idea won’t work start thinking about what would have to be true to make it work.  Change your style, build on ideas instead of dismissing them.  Hand out red cards to people who are critical not constructive.  Create formal environments whose sole purpose is to build ideas.  There is a reason why Google have such “out there” working environments.  What could you do to change the way your organisation develops ideas?

When Alexander the Great visited Diogenes and asked whether he could do anything for the famed teacher, Diogenes replied: “Only stand out of my light.” Perhaps some day we shall know how to heighten creativity. Until then, one of the best things we can do for creative men and women is to stand out of their light ~ John W. Gardner


The act of prototyping an idea or running a trial makes it real, it forces you to suspend disbelief, to make it work.  It will also give you far more insight than evaluating the idea on paper ever will.  More than that it will make the idea tangible; people will sit up and take note.  Never judge an idea until you have tried it (there are some exceptions to this rule, I would include Morris Dancing on the list).

Create momentum

The act of prototyping creates momentum, but there are many other ways.  Instead of writing an e-mail, pickup the phone.  Instead of waiting for all the information and analysis, start when you have 70%.  Instead of asking for formal presentations, ask for verbal briefings.  Focus your energy on a few things, not everything.  It is amazing what you can create if you give yourself the time, space and momentum to do so.

When you have developed your winning idea, it is simply a question of feeding it into your development funnel.  Then you are back to where you started, a bit of robust project management.

If you put all of these steps in place, even those of you who are terminally non creative will find that they can innovate.

Innovation Process


Carry out a innovation audit.  It doesn’t need to be elaborate, run a workshop working through these simple questions:

  • How strong is your project management, are you really clear on the status of each and every project?
  • Do you spin off ideas, can you name 3 recent developments (within the last year) that are unashamed rip offs of previous projects?
  • Do you have a clear priority of problems to work on.  Is it obvious what the biggest opportunities are to boost business performance?
  • Finally, do you have a culture that supports creativity, or are you quick to criticise ideas and abandon them?

Critique the outputs and ask yourself what actions need to be undertaken.  Which of the four areas do you fall down in?  What are you going to do about it?

Further Reading

To find out more about creativity at work, how you can harness the ideas of those arround you and deliver innovations that will impress your customers, I thoroughly recommend “Sticky Wisdom” by Dave Allan & Co. It is a straight forward and simple explanation of how to promote a creative environment, providing lots of examples and context.  You can find out more from the Amazon link below:

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Post Script

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