When asked why he wasn’t getting results with his countless tries to successfully develop the light bulb, Thomas Edison replied, “Results? Why, I’ve got a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.”
And that’s probably the first thing we need to realise about innovation. Innovation’s a great buzzword, but at the end of the day, it’s back to basics and all about trial and error, a hands-on, feet-on-the-ground approach. Yes, innovation is in many cases a hands-on thing. How else can you make something better? How else can you satisfy a customer’s need that he doesn’t know he had, or didn’t know a solution for it could be found. All of a sudden – after months, years even, thinking that innovation and you don’t mix, that innovation is more likely to be linked to the scientist, the IT whiz kid down the road, those delving in high technology, perhaps – you may be thinking to yourself, you could actually qualify as an innovator after all. In his article “Building a Learning Organization”, Harvard Business School professor, David Garvin, writes, “Experimentation involves the systematic searching for and testing of new knowledge… A study of more than 150 new products concluded that ‘the knowledge gained from failures (is) often instrumental in achieving subsequent successes’… In the simplest terms, failure is the ultimate teacher.”
Innovator, Entrepreneur, Risk-taker?
One of the more dangerous myths about innovators and entrepreneurship is that we have to be a risk taker to be successful. Not so. Speculators, traders, and wheeler-dealers might thrive on the risks and rush of “doing deals”. But innovators and entrepreneurs building long-term businesses aren’t risky gamblers. Successful entrepreneurs and innovators are probably too obsessed with developing new products, services, management systems, human resource approaches, markets and niches, and businesses that will give them that big competitive advantage – that’s their ultimate goal.
What about the user?
The litmus test for innovation is invariably the user, and most innovators, entrepreneurs, investors even, will want to know exactly what this new product or service does for the end user. Indeed, innovation strategy is by no means a hunch or a gamble, and has more chance of success the more it starts with the users.
Companies spend so much money on research – of technologies, of markets, of customers – but this doesn’t always lead to innovation. Many innovative products, services and companies flop early on in their life, often because managers build mouse-traps without first making sure that there are mice out there to be caught, or that people still want to catch them. They try to solve problems that customers don’t even know they have, or didn’t know could be solved. Ultimately, it’s all about walking in the customer’s shoes.
So many products that we now take for granted must have sounded so ridiculous, silly, when they were first muted. Can you imagine, surely not too many decades ago – what the guy (whoever he was) must have felt as he walked into a board room full of impatient businessmen for the umpteenth time, with his artistic impression of a young lady holding a wireless mobile telephone in her hand, in yet another failed attempt to convince them that mobile technology has a bright future? How about CD players when there were no CDs to buy? What about a bankcard to withdraw cash from an ATM? How about a personal computer? At best, a very few of us might have considered these ideas with a bit of curiosity for a very short while, but little else. These are just a few examples of the thousands of innovations that customer or market research and competitive benchmarking would never have identified a need for.
Leadership and teamwork
Innovation is a hands-on issue. It calls for an intimate understanding of current customers and markets, potential new customers or markets, team and organisation competencies and so much more. We cannot develop that intimacy from a distance. Studies, reports, surveys, graphs, and measurements wouldn’t do it.
Nor is it a one-man thing. Effective innovation depends on disciplined management, but it is mainly about people searching for creative ways to do things better, different, or more effectively. People trying to understand how other people use, or could use, the products or services their organization could produce. That makes innovation a leadership issue, where teamwork and teambuilding are key, and where the need to involve takes on an important role, because the people employed within an organisation are quite possibly the people who can most influence a new idea. It’s clearly all about vision, but how many of us, hand on heart, say that they always involve their subordinates in vision-building and decision-making?
At the other extreme, of course, business leaders recognise that their organisations are constantly in danger of constantly remaining in product research and development mode – the story of so many software companies, for example. At some stage in the innovation cycle, research and development must give way to marketing and sales. Ultimately, businesses will only survive if the products or services they have can be marketed and sold, which in turn will bring in the revenue streams necessary for a business to grow, which in turn will fuel further research, further innovation.
Ing. Jesmond Silvio is Manager – Malta Regional Innovation Strategy at Malta Enterprise