Being innovative, or innovating, is a skill like any other.
There are people who appear to fizz with new ideas, throwing them out every other day, or so it seems. We can all develop our innovation skills with a bit of practice.
The skills and techniques of innovative thinking are not just vital in work, but useful in everyday life as well, helping us to grow and develop in new situations and think about how to adapt to change more easily.
What is Innovation?
Innovate, v.t. To introduce as something new. Innovation n. the act of innovating.
Chambers English Dictionary, 1989 edition.
The process of bringing any new, problem-solving idea into use… Innovation is the generation, acceptance and implementation of new ideas, processes, products or services.
Kanter, R.M. (1984), The Change Masters: Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the American Corporation, Simon and Schuster, New York, NY.
Innovation is therefore, and crucially, not just the generation of new ideas but being able to put them into useful practice on a daily basis.
Types of Innovation
At an organisational level, there are four main categories of innovation, which can be distinguished by whether the problem is well-defined, and whether it is clear who is best placed to solve it.
These categories of innovation are:
- Basic research, where there is no clearly defined outcome. The idea is to explore how something works. Many commentators consider that basic research is not innovation because it does not involve the application of the new findings. However, it is an essential precursor to much innovation because it is often only by understanding how things work that new ideas emerge or can be applied.
- Sustaining innovation, where the problem is clearly defined, and it is also clear who is best placed to solve it. An example of this type of innovation is the iPod, where Steve Jobs had a clear idea that there was a market for a device that allowed you to ‘put 1000 songs in your pocket’. The nature of the problems was clear, as were the skills needed to address them.
- Disruptive innovation, which introduces new approaches to old products or services. A good example of this would be the development of budget airlines, which cut out the expensive parts of the service that people tended not to value and radically cut the cost.
- Breakthrough innovation involves a paradigm shift and often, but not always, requires someone from outside to bring a new perspective. An example would be the discovery of the structure of DNA, where Watson and Crick quite literally turned the previous thinking inside-out.
These categories can be mapped onto a matrix:
Environmental Influences on Innovation
Different environments will favour different categories of innovation. For example, basic research is best done in an environment where there is very little pressure to solve particular problems but where the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is valued, such as a university. Many companies do invest in basic research, however, often by sponsoring placements and students at universities.
Sustaining innovation is the most likely to emerge from an established R&D program in a large company. Big companies can invest in developing new ways of using existing technology, or improving existing technology to make it cheaper or better quality, and would expect to see a reasonable return on such investment.
Disruptive innovation tends to happen where new competitors emerge in an established industry, partly because a new company can think differently. It’s very hard to innovate disruptively deliberately, because it’s often not clear what the problem is that you’re trying to solve. Those companies that have done so successfully tend to have looked at the existing offering, and then very deliberately targeted the areas that it does not meet.
Formule 1 Hotels, in France, looked at their existing hotels beside motorways and noticed that they tended to have large lounge areas which nobody used and big bedrooms which wasted a lot of space, so that they had relatively high costs.
The company reduced this space, fitting in more rooms, and enabling them to offer much cheaper accommodation, which was favoured by customers looking for inexpensive roadside lodgings.
Breakthrough innovation tends to need outsiders because those already working in the area have ‘hit a brick wall’. Established companies will often sponsor innovation prizes to solve particular problems as a way of bringing in this fresh thinking.
Approaches to Managing Innovation and Change
After studying a large number of organisations, Rosabeth Kanter suggested that there were two organisational approaches to innovation and change: integrative and segmentalist.
Integrative organisations treat innovation as an opportunity and not a threat. They tend to deal with problems as a whole organisation, rather than in separate sections, and are enthusiastic about new ideas. Generally, these organisations are more flexible and willing to change.
Segmentalist organisations tend to work in silos, with each bit of the organisation dealing separately with problems relating to change, and management not taking an overall view. Such organisations are generally unwilling to change their structure, or alter the relationships between different bits of the organisation, which makes them very inflexible.
Kanter concluded that integrative organisations handled change and innovation much better. She further suggested that people within integrative organisations showed three key skills that were vital to managing innovation.
Three Key Skills for Innovating
Being able to persuade others to invest time and money in new and potentially risky initiatives.
People Management Skills:
The ability to be able to effectively cope with difficulties arising from team-working and, in particular, individual team members’ participation or non-participation.
Change Management Skills:
To understand how change can be positively designed and ultimately constructed within an organisation.
See our pages on Change Management for more.