Innovation is critical for us all. To support a planet with between 9 and 10 billion people, we need innovation in our food supply, water and energy systems and in our systems for health care, social support and education. Innovation should be a major focus for governments, universities and colleges, business and community.
Yet innovation is so poorly understood. Many see it as the work of a few, especially people in science and technology, not the work of many. When they think of innovation, they think of “breakthroughs” and “game changers” or so-called “disruptive innovation”. Some innovations are exactly like this – the internet is a disruptive innovation (ask Blockbuster former executives) and penicillin was a breakthrough innovation that disrupted the spread of disease. But most innovation is not like this. Most innovation occurs when someone takes an idea from somewhere (they adopt it) and then they modify it to suit their challenge or purpose (they adapt it). We call this “adopt-adapt” innovation and the best-guess estimate is that 95% of all innovations are like this.
Take frozen foods, for example. The idea came from someone observing that the Inuit froze their food to eat later – they didn’t use deep freezers or packages, but wrapped food in muslin or other materials, stored it in the ice they were surrounded by and heated it up when needed. The idea was adapted to become a frozen food business in the US, which also led to the development of domestic freezers and ready-made meals. While this has had an impact on the food supply chain and on the fast food industry, the starting point wasn’t an “invention” but an “adapt-adopt”. Another example of this is the use of an electric shaver to remove the “pills” from sweaters and clothes – the clothes shaver. Adapting the electric shaver technology for a different purpose has created new products and a substantial market.
Looking for Innovations
When we want to look at innovation inside a company or organization, the best place to begin is with “pain points”. What gets in the way of high performance and customer or client satisfaction? What are the “moments of truth” where the reputation of the organization is at stake because the service or the product doesn’t always deliver “as it should”? These pain points become the agenda for improvement and innovation.
Next, look at what other organizations do about these same points. In particular, look at organizations in completely different industries and other parts of the world. Look outside your own “box” into other boxes. For example, when we had a problem with getting learning materials to students around the world in the early 1990s (before the internet) we didn’t look just at what other universities and colleges were doing; we looked at what Ford and GM did to get learning materials to their global dealer networks; we looked at what large health care systems did to get best practice advice to their front line medical teams; we looked at what safety officers did in airlines to get safety guideline updates to their crews around the world. This gave us ideas about what we could do in Canada to solve our problem. We adopted some ideas from each of these sectors and adapted them to our circumstance.
Finally, look to try several options and eliminate those that do not produce results. Innovation is as much about trial and error as it is about making progress. James Dyson, when he was working on his breakthrough vacuum cleaner, tried 5,172 prototypes before he found the one that made him a household name in the developed world.
The work of innovation is an expedition, a journey. It rarely is a wake up and shout “Eureka!” experience. Be prepared for mountains, valleys, difficult rivers to cross and thunderstorms.