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Corporate Innovation meets Generative AI

Navigating Buzzword Overload: Innovation


Innovation feels like the holy grail – but once you get past the "big idea," how do you make it happen in the trenches? These five accelerators – along with one magic ingredient – will make innovation real for your organization.

Innovation has had its fair share of time in the spotlight for many years. An active buzzword in product development and marketing circles, many have adopted innovation as an inspirational modifier for different areas of activity. Companies are happy to call out their innovative products and services. Everyone wants to tout innovative approaches to connecting with customers, empowering employees, and using the technology and information at their disposal in everyday work.

Innovation has also become a challenge; we constantly ask ourselves and our teams to bring innovative thought and action into their daily work. Innovation becomes the unspecified magic bullet of problem-solving – we encourage ourselves and our teams to be innovative when trying to solve the intractable problem or identify the next big product or market.

Innovation is another typical example of a buzzword – and unfortunately, there is no quick and easy way to unpack this shorthand. People are trying hard to communicate something when they rely on a word like this. Apparently, there is a pressing need in many areas to innovate on how we do what we do; we need to create new value for multiple stakeholders, we need to stand apart from the competition as we fight for attention and resources

The need is there – it’s still a high concept word, consistently part of many people’s talk track. And on the receiving end of this conversation – how can we understand this idea? In a practical sense – what does it mean to innovate?

Five Accelerators to Move From Buzzword to Practical Reality

The dictionary does a terrific job of reducing this to its essence; innovation means something new. Why use four syllables when three will do?

The goal of innovation is clear: do something new. Think of something new. Apply new ideas and new techniques to the same old problems to get new, breakthrough results.

It sounds simple – but how do you make that happen in the real world? There is no magic bullet, no single seminar or book that will explain the process in detail. However, a couple of conditions need to exist before meaningful innovation can start to happen.

  • Environment – you need to establish an environment of possibilities that enables new ideas to come to life. Think of something virtual (meta-worlds, collaboration software) or real (coffee shop, office hallways) that brings people in contact and allows ideas to flow freely. It’s not just collaboration spaces or open work plans; you also need a work environment that provides access to the right technologies, with the right level of learning and experimentation, allowing people to get the value out of the tools and processes.
  • Challenge – There has to be a raison d’etre, a burning platform, an exciting opportunity, a nagging problem. Innovation needs a problem to solve! And in an interesting bit of circular logic, one of the challenges of innovation is finding a problem to solve. If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail … well, for innovation, you are holding something that feels like a hammer, and you want to find that particular nail.
  • Creativity – Ah, here’s is the spark that most folks refer to when they speak on Innovation in reverent tones. Multiple signals are coming in – from Necessity, from Abundance, from Need. Multiple triggers will justify an investment of time and attention; Voice of the Customer, work overload, productivity demands. The trick is to find and encourage the creative spark that many people enjoy. It takes a little imagination to put tools, processes, and technology to work differently.
  • Curiosity is different from Creativity because it includes ideas like Permission to Fail, Freedom / Time to Experiment, Be Intrigued, Trust. The curious innovator is open to trying different approaches in areas other folks may dismiss. The curious innovator also needs to experiment with new technologies – be willing to question their current understanding and preferences, and learn different tools and methods to get things done.
  • Focus on Results – Some might see Curiosity as a blanket invitation to waste time. And to a certain extent, this is true – innovation is a lossy process in the short term as experiments are attempted and alternatives explored. However, real innovation happens when new methods are employed and new outcomes are delivered. The successful innovator must be genuinely motivated to find and answer questions, uncover opportunities, and deliver for customers.

Do Something New – and Deliver Results

An open and innovative environment can bring value for all of your critical stakeholders.

  • Owners / Shareholders will see top line and bottom line improvements on the financial statements
  • Employees will feel empowered and engaged
  • Trading Partners will enjoy smoother transactions and optimized operations
  • The Community will benefit from economic and educational demand

And yes, those are conveniently high-level statements; everyone will agree that innovation brings meaningful business results. So what can you do next? What innovation can you do in your life, in your business, in the next few days – to deliver on that value?

  • Change your environment. Get a few folks together at the local watering hole, or over some pancakes – and toss around some crazy ideas that you have been noodling. See what connections happen …
  • Identify a challenge – Don’t worry about the How, pay attention to the Why. Make it focused enough to explain in 90 seconds and big enough to get on someone’s radar screen.
  • Try some experiments, mashing up ideas that haven’t connected before. Ask someone in HR how to approach a Finance problem. Explain a systems challenge to your plant manager. Make combinations that are … creative.
  • Learn a new skill – Part of “curiosity” includes trying something new. There are so many new technologies that might automate your challenges … and you need to get some hands-on experience. Find a video tutor and do some experiments!
  • Set a time box and a minimum viable solution. Work with a buddy, and promise something … anything … by Friday afternoon. It could be a working prototype, a cost estimate, a sketch – anything. Success will be enough information to make a decision – double down, or stop and regroup.

The Magic Ingredient

In my experience, there is one last critical component for a truly innovative organization, a genuinely innovative mindset. It’s gotta be fun. I mean, come on – new tools and tech? Deliver results that everyone talks about? Experiments and learning?

A sense of joie de vivre goes a long way. Enjoy!

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