7 Important Lessons on Innovation

by: Doug Michaelides

On October 14th, I moderated a Stratford Managers panel event on innovation attended by over 80 of Ottawa’s business elite.  They came to hear Martin Horne, Steve West, Ward Griffin and Jim Roche speak on  innovation and transformation.  The insights were so interesting that I could hardly wait to share them.

Innovate or Die

It’s tough to balance efforts to innovate with the day-to-day grind of running a business.  But innovation is essential – even (or especially) for companies in mature or regulated markets.  Innovation is the key to differentiation and long-term survival.

It’s Not Just About Products

Those of us in the tech sector tend to focus on product innovation.  But innovation in other areas is just as important.  Process innovation, which often starts as a simple project, can lead to wholesale operational improvements.  Innovations in commercial models (how could we charge for this?) and business models (what other businesses could we be in?) may lead to substantial new opportunities.

Innovation Comes From People

Passionate (sometimes obsessed) individuals are often the driving force behind innovation.  Increase the odds of successful innovation by hiring open personalities and building diverse teams.  The C-suite also sets the tone by demonstrating innovative thinking and supporting initiatives.  Avoid applying traditional ROI hurdles to these investments.  Don’t demand a detailed business case before getting started.  Consider separating radical initiatives from internal obstacles using skunkworks.  The boss’ job is to foster innovation, not squash it!

The Enemy of Innovation is Complacency

The toughest time to innovate is when things are good.  This applies to successful companies and to wealthy societies like Canada’s.  When we are comfortable, we get complacent and unwilling to take risks.  The solution?  Identify a new threat or emerging competitor.  Invent a crisis!  These are great ways to stoke the flames of innovation in a fat, happy and lazy organization.

Fail Fast

It’s a modern business truism that the key to innovation is to fail fast.  Yet too many start-ups struggle on after years of searching for a winning formula.  There is danger in “over innovating” – obsessively trying to achieve perfection but never crossing the finish line.  Avoid creeping elegance and know when to cut bait.  For larger companies, a portfolio approach to product investments ensures that “question marks” don’t drain resources long past their best-before dates.

Celebrate Failure

Successful venture capitalists like to bet on people who have experienced both success and failure.  That’s because we learn from mistakes.  As Seth Godin points out, people are not afraid of failure, they’re afraid of blame.  So, it’s up to the leadership team to create a culture that celebrates failure as a measure of risk-taking, innovation and learning, rather than assigns blame.

Innovation is its Own Best Protection

Good ideas are worth protecting right from the start.  Many competitive barriers can be created to protect an investment in innovation including influencing standards and regulations, guarding trade secrets and filing patents.  Yet in the end, the best protection for a company isn’t in any single innovation but in the ability to keep innovating well ahead of the competition.

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