The Eight Truths of Real Innovators

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by: Alain Thys

There’s lot’s of talk about innovations these days, yet when you look at the stats, 90% of innovation projects never make it.  That’s why I thought having a go at  coming up with “eight truths for real innovators”.  There’s probably more and you may not agree with all, yet as usual, I’m happy to learn.

Truth #1: Stop equating innovation to R&D.

While white coats are important, there’s more to innovation than product & technology. That is why real innovators track every area that could give them a competitive edge and actively seek out areas their competitors have missed.

They introduce metrics to innovate against the customer experience, the processes, the business model of the company.  They question every aspect of the organization, not just its product’s performance.

Truth #2: Pay people to fail.

Most companies base their performance bonuses and promotions on being “successful.”  This means that if you’ve got a mortgage, kids and half a brain you’re not going to stick your neck out on things that may go wrong.

Yet it is exactly the risky projects that lead to competitive breakthroughs and require the smartest people in the company.  Real innovators understand this and figure out ways to reward people even if they fail.

Truth #3: Treat everyone as an innovator.

In most companies, less than 10% of the workforce is involved in innovation.  Real innovators understand this untapped potential and set up systems to capture the thoughts, ideas, dreams and opportunities generated by the other 90%.  They look at every concept and reward the individual who came up with it.  They train every employee in the art of innovation.  They give people time and space to develop pet projects and take them seriously.

Truth #4: Kill bad ideas quickly.

Structural innovation is about finding nuggets of gold in a pile of rubbish.  Yet in organizations people sometimes fall in love with the rubbish they created themselves.  This can waste valuable resources and divert the company’s attention.

Real innovators understand this and establish processes to kill bad ideas quickly, without disparaging the people who came up with them.  (Their next idea may be a good one.)

Truth #5: Launch first, worry about the shortcomings later.

Traditionalists want to get every aspect of an innovation absolutely right.  The speed of today’s economy however requires an “fast to market” attitude. Real innovators understand that the best school for product improvement is the market itself.  That is why they work with pilot customers to fine-tune products and learn on the job, rather than making elaborate assumptions.

Truth #6: Don’t believe what your customers tell you, dig deeper.

People are notorious for saying one thing to market researchers and then doing something else.  Real needs lie beyond superficial market surveys and live in the realm of emotion.  Customers are human, which means they have dreams, fears and frustrations waiting to be answered.

Real innovators dig for these deeper level thoughts and embrace them in the way they develop, introduce, package, sell and deliver their value proposition.

Truth #7: Don’t try radical innovation, buy it.

Just like our body starts fighting any virus that may threaten it’s existence, organisations annihilate any innovation which may undermine the status quo (just imagine the hypothetical scenario of a telco researcher trying to convince his bosses to introduce free VOIP before Skype existed).  That is why real innovators don’t pursue “radical” innovations themselves.  They just buy them when a dominant design appears to emerge.

Truth #8: Mix elements that shouldn’t be mixed.

Real innovators ask scientists to work in stores and involve the receptionist in product evaluation.  They bring in artists, scientists, writers, philosophers and anthropologists, even if these people have no idea what the business is about.

Leonardo da Vinci built some of the most impressive fortifications of the Renaissance.  Real innovators understand the art of being the Duke that had the foresight of giving a “painter” a military commission.

If you have any truths I’ve missed, don’t hesitate to comment!