A few months ago, I was interviewed by a group of entrepreneurs from Mexico about my thoughts on innovation. Here are some key discussion points that came up in our conversation.
What is innovation?
When people use the word “innovation”, most of the time they are thinking about scientific or technological innovation. To me, however, innovation simply means coming up with new ideas on how to solve problems, and then successfully implementing these ideas into viable solutions, and it applies to every discipline.
Coming up with a non-invasive way to test a diabetic patient’s blood glucose level is innovation. Coming up with novel ways to incentivize a sales channel to double their product sell through rate is innovation. Coming up with visualization tools for budget-versus-actual analyses to help a cost center manage its expenses is innovation.
Why is innovation key in a startup?
Innovation is critical for any organization that needs to maintain a competitive edge, but for a startup, it is a matter of survival. Startups are always pressed for time and resources. They are constantly looking for new and non-obvious ways to solve problems and meet objectives quickly. They are constantly solving new problems never solved before. Being creative and flexible is key.
How do we come up with a process for innovation?
In my mind, the very nature of innovation is non-linear, whereas processes and frameworks tend to be rigid and structured. In my opinion, innovation and set processes don’t go well together. Rather than creating a documented process, we should focus on creating an environment that encourages risk taking and spontaneous, out-of-the-box thinking, which in turn encourages and nurtures innovation. We should make it ok for team members to try things that aren’t guaranteed to work. Also consider building in some intentional slack, so people have the space and breathing room to come up with great ideas during their down time.
How can you tell if your organization is innovating successfully?
It’s one of those “you know it when you see it” things. An innovative organization simply exudes creative problem solving vibes. There are also objective signs: more patents being applied for; faster turnaround in responding to market needs and customer requests; loyal and happy customers who trust an organization to solve their problems effectively; these all help to show that the organization is innovating where it matters.
Are there best practices for encouraging innovation in a startup?
One thing I advocate is the “tiger team approach”. I like to pull a cross functional team together from different departments. This project team gets together and works on a well defined problem with great focus until it is resolved. The diversity within the team ensures that the problem is looked at from multiple perspectives. Effective collaboration results in effective innovation.