February 26, 2013
3 CEO Essentials For Igniting Innovation

Having observed many companies go through transformations yielding innovative thinking and action from previously struggling teams, the difference usually boils down to something missing from the company’s culture, processes or environment. But what?

Consider this analogy—to create fire, you need three key ingredients: a spark or source of heat, some type of fuel and oxygen. These ingredients are all necessary for the reaction to occur. If any is missing, nothing happens, and the dormant potential is not realized.

A similar pattern for sparking innovation includes three key components: a focused objective, relevant information and freedom. When these are present, amazing things can happen. When any is missing, no reward structure or corporate mandate can instead create the magic.

1. Focused Objective

This is the spark of innovation. The human mind is an incredible problem-solving machine, and it works best when given a very clear and precise goal. Defining the right objective for your innovation team to churn on is the first step to empowering them.

For example, if you want your team to create an innovative doorknob, that’s somewhat specific. However, designing a doorknob that looks like brass, lasts at least 10 years and can retail for no more than $19.99 is a much more specific objective.

Where does such specificity come from? We use a concept in our innovation framework called cascading innovation. Consider that it may have been a prior team’s innovation output to find the market’s desire for $19.99 faux brass doorknobs. The team’s specific objective may have been to determine existing gaps in the market where the company could generate at least $50 million in incremental sales by next year through existing retail channels.

Also consider how that team’s input might have come from yet another team whose focus was to figure out which residential hardware market would have the greatest potential for growth over the next five years, to which they concluded doorknobs.

So what about constraints? When articulating a focused objective, it is very important to clearly define the correct constraints. Be careful not to state the objective or problem too much in the terms of current “legacy” solution to the problem. As Henry Ford supposedly said, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” So avoid defining the problem as “a faster horse” versus “a faster way to travel.”

At the same time, all creativity exists within some kind of framework, whether it’s the structure of a haiku poem or the frame of a painting. If our doorknob team comes back with a product that lasts 100 years but costs $3,000 each to manufacture, it has not succeeded.

Innovation teams also get frustrated if significant energy is expended on creative solutions only to discover later that some constraints were never articulated. Give your team the clear target and rules of the game so they can figure out how to win it.

What’s fabulous is that once all constraints are clear, we can tell our teams with confidence that any solution that solves the problem within the constraints is fair game, even if it looks nothing like what anybody expects—which is very liberating.

2. Information

Relevant information is the fuel of innovation. Our doorknob team hopefully includes people armed with personal experience in the doorknob biz. Still, collecting additional information and making it easy for the team to organize and internalize such is key.

This information may include competitive examples of other doorknobs, market research on consumer needs or materials prices for a variety of low-cost metals. Finding the right information with which to fuel your team will allow them to burn hotter and longer on the problem.

Here are three ways to get the information to feed your team:

  • The Right Mix. The people you choose bring unique backgrounds and experience to the table. For our consulting projects, significant thought goes into the right composition of the client’s innovation team to bring different backgrounds, knowledge, personalities and perspective to bear. Once assembled, each member’s individual knowledge is an information resource to him/herself as a member of the team. The team’s collective knowledge will be a resource to the entire team if you structure the collaboration to foster knowledge sharing.
  • The Right Numbers. Secondary research such as market studies, government statistics and materials analysis can provide critical reference. Gathering the full gamut of available information and structuring it so it’s easily digested and referenced can be a sizable undertaking, but it is critical to giving the team information that may yield flashes of valuable insight, as well as the necessary tools to evaluate and prioritize ideas as they are generated.
  • The Right Experience. Primary research your team participates in, such as talking to customers and building and testing physical prototypes, is another way to get the information to fuel your team. There is no substitute for personal experience.

You can also think of two key “buckets” of information that together form the ideal fuel.

  • Knowledge of the problem space:
    • Who are the users for whom we are innovating? What do we understand about their needs?
    • Has this problem been solved before or have prior attempts been made? What was the approach and what were the results?
    • How can a potential solution’s effectiveness be measured? How will we know when the problem is solved?
    • Has anyone solved or attempted to solve a similar problem whose experience may be instructive?
  • Knowledge of available resources:
    • Define rules regarding any constraints that must be met for a successful approach (e.g., regulatory restrictions or distribution restrictions).
    • Find specific characteristics of different materials or processes that either enable or hamper their use in particular ways.
    • Track down information on new technologies that can be leveraged in the solution.

There’s a scene from Apollo 13 where the team has to figure out how to keep the astronauts alive until re-entry, even though a command module has failed, causing the air to slowly become poisoned. The leader of the Mission Control team tasked with solving the problem dumps miscellaneous objects onto a table and tells the team, “We gotta find a way to make this [large square filters] fit into the hole for this [smaller round filters], using nothing but that [the pile of stuff mirroring available material on the command module].”

Watch this one-minute clip—it’s a great example of a focused objective with clear information about the resources available to solve the problem.

3. Freedom

Freedom is the oxygen of innovation. In daily “business as usual,” a variety of things that hold us back, suppressing the natural release of our latent creativity just as lack of oxygen snuffs out a campfire.

Here are a few barriers to freedom and how to overcome them:

  • Fear. Fear of looking foolish and fear of political repercussions are the two greatest risks to innovation. These fears hold back new ideas and honest discourse. Such setbacks are best overcome with culture. In our innovation workshops, we stress rules such as “leaving rank at the door” and highlighting the value of bad ideas.
  • Patterns. We all follow certain patterns. These become the grooves in the road that make it hard to find a new path. They are the shackles that keep us from thinking freely. Some techniques for breaking these habits include using a different workspace, music, toys, time compression, physical activity, games and mixing teams in unexpected ways.
  • Assumptions. People have assumptions about what can or can’t be done, what the company will or won’t allow, what the market will or won’t accept, etc. But most successful innovations break such existing assumptions.One of the reasons for taking great care in defining the problem and its constraints is because in doing so we let the innovation team know every assumption they should respect. Anything else should be challenged.One great example of this is the “Google exercise.” People perceive Google as innovative, so we tell people: “Google just bought your company and put its most innovative team on the problem. How would they solve it?” This context puts people outside their normal assumptions about what is possible and even, strangely enough, frees them from limiting beliefs about their own imaginations. The team may come back and say, “Well, the guys at Google would do this wild, innovative thing, but that’s the sort of thing we’d never come up with here at Acme Corporation.” Uh-oh, tricked you! You just did.
  • Lack of faith. The last component of freedom is faith, and a lack of faith can stifle innovation. Teams must believe solutions to the challenge exist and that they are more than capable of arriving at them.

There you have it—the three ingredients to ignite innovation: a clear set of objectives to spark the fire, a rich set of information to fuel it, and an atmosphere of freedom so the flame can breathe. Learning how to empower teams to achieve maximum innovation is your next step. Are you ready to apply these principles?

Howard Tiersky
Howard Tiersky is President and Founder of Moving Interactive (MI), a global consultancy that works with leading brands to optimize digital revenue. With an end-to-end approach, MI helps clients identify new opportunities and optimize existing ones with a blend of strategy, user experience, and technology services, all integrated with an iterative and agile approach to building, deploying, and selling digital products. Howard can be reached here.

Other Articles by Howard Tiersky:

How CEOs And Their Employees View Innovation