June 23, 2009

The Mother of Innovation In a world starving for fresh ideas, innovation is being tossed around like pennies as the solution to corporate ills. If only it were so simple. Employees and managers don’t fall out of bed one day, decide to be innovative and voila, a new idea enters the marketplace. Most innovative companies dedicate resources and significant staff time to scouting new ideas. Oftentimes such companies find a niche before the average consumer and the marketplace is ready for it. Being innovative does not mean creating a new gadget that did not exist in the marketplace. It refers to addressing a customer need or improving an existing product or service. Decades ago IBM hired an expensive marketing firm to research the potential of high speed copying machines, according to Scott Anthony in his book The Silver Lining. There was no need for such technology, marketers said. Good thing IBM didn’t listen. The conservative nature and absence of creativity inside the walls of most organizations are two prime reasons why innovation is stifled. When executives declare that it is an employee’s job to be innovative that fails to inspire anyone. 3M famously allowed employees to spend 20 percent of their time generating ideas. Spending human capital is just as crucial as greenbacks. It is possible to be innovative even among laggards like General Motors which developed the On Star hotline service, a highly successful mobile service that customers are willing to pay for. Where is the best place to start? Try talking to customers first because they are the ones who are most likely best able to express their needs and wants. Few businesses do this today, focused as they are on survival or maintaining unrealistic standards of growth just a few years ago. The perceived high cost of failure is another barrier to innovation. Most executives blanch at the thought of investing money in an idea that might not yield high returns. For innovators, failure is only temporary as 3M discovered when its early attempts to create a semi-permanent glue planted the seeds for Post-It notes. Innovation requires the kind of thinking that breaks established convention, the kind of person who says why can’t we do this? It means not being afraid to submit an idea that others shy away from out of fear that it is “stupid” or might draw ridicule.

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The T+D blog covers training, learning, business, and technology topics as well as relevant content from ASTD (the American Society for Training and Development) publications and services.

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