The 10 Ingredients of Everyday Innovation
By Susan McPhail, APR
Sue McPhail is an Accredited public relations counselor. She worked in journalism, advertising and public relations agencies as well as the entertainment field before establishing Ideaology, an innovation catalyst, engineering and marketing firm. Sue holds a second degree black belt in the Korean martial art of Taekwon Do. Her husband and partner, Mark,is one of America’s best known experts in high performance hot rods. He has developed of a wide array of innovative engines and components. Together, they work with organizations to stimulate bottom-up innovation and cultures in which innovation is a cornerstone.
Innovation. It’s the hottest topic in business circles today as the economy softens and manufacturing jobs go overseas. More than 50 percent of 350 executives in the United States said in a recent poll that innovation is one of the five most important factors in building competitive advantage. Ironically, just 10 percent of those same executives, surveyed by the management and technology services firm Accenture, say their organization excels at innovation.
Innovation Outside The R&D Department
Most corporate initiatives designed to stimulate innovation achieve only temporary success. According to a study by the Association for Managers of Innovation, the biggest barrier to success was the almost exclusive focus on the R&D or business function. Innovation was ordered from the top down.
What if a culture of innovation, arises from the individual? Perhaps the most important job of managers and executives in this endeavor is to tend the crop – remove the weeds, add fertilizer, and make certain there is enough water and sunshine so that the fields blossom. If so, what does that entail?
The 10 Ingredients of Everyday
Innovation: From the Drag Strip To Your Doorstep
Let’s switch gears for a moment, refocus on innovation in the individual and talk about hot rodders. Hot rodders, you ask? What could gearheads possibly have to do with innovation?
Hot rodders improve performance and customize cars that in many cases are 20-50 years old. Finding parts isn’t always easy. Hot rodders frequent swap meets and junk yards to find what they want and discover what they don’t know. They devour information in magazines, attend car shows and join car clubs – not just to show off their ride – they also do it to expand their resources and knowledge. If a gearhead can’t find a particular part he or she wants, the search expands to other makes and models with similar parts that can be easily modified to fit the bill.
Most projects take them to places they never imagined they’d go. Modifications sometimes take a long time - not just to locate the parts, but to learn how to install them and fit them seamlessly during assembly. Gearheads have a great tolerance for not knowing what they are doing and being willing to learn along the way. They are not afraid to admit they don’t know how to accomplish something. Ignorance isn’t concealed – it’s celebrated. It’s just one more opportunity to learn.
Hotrodders are passionate, resourceful, talented and determined. But are they really any different from the rest of us? From engineers and at-home gearheads, I have learned these 10 ingredients of innovation:
Ingredient #1: Innovation happens
You’ve never heard of two prolific innovators at one of the Big Three automakers. And if they have their way, you never will. These two engineers have passed up promotions, raises and recognition. They shun the acknowledgement that most of us crave because they believe and have evidence that the freedom they have to innovate will be taken away if folks around them find out that they are operating outside the boundaries of their job descriptions or departments.
Many innovators have discovered that sneakiness goes with the territory. Take the legendary stock car racer Smokey Yunick, for instance. Smokey was always pushing the rules of racing in the name of innovation (he called it going faster). He was stopped one day by race officials for having a gas tank larger than regulations permitted. Officials removed the entire tank on the spot. Then Smokey got in the car, fired it up and drove it back to the garage – he had that much fuel contained in the huge fuel line snaking through the vehicle! Anything to get the job done.
Many of us believe that innovation is in short supply. It’s not. Innovation is a natural phenomenon that is all around us in nature, conversation and the experiences we have. We’re just not awake to it often enough. Although innovation is present everywhere, it often goes underground, operating under the radar screen, in environments that are structured in such a way that innovation is suppressed.
To bring innovation to bear: Companies already possess the most potent innovation tool in the world – the minds of their own people. Set them free.
Ingredient #2: Innovation happens anywhere
Innovation doesn’t exist only in the R&D, design and marketing departments. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in engineering or chemistry to be an innovator. Great ideas can come from any where – from a stranger in the mail, the person who is poorly groomed, a technician who has labored tirelessly and quietly for 30 years or someone who has wandered into your company for the first time and knows nothing about your business. Ignorance can provide incredible access to innovation because the person who knows nothing, is not burdened by preconceived ideas about what can be done, what might work or the results of consumer surveys.
Innovators are ordinary people who think up imaginative ways to do things that morph old products into new ones, streamline production processes and invent new ways of doing things. They don’t have a particular job title, look or act a certain way, they are not necessarily articulate and might not network in the “right” circles. Real innovators are not concerned about those things, they are just fascinated by discovery. It’s as simple as that.
To bring innovation to bear: The real question isn’t about them, it’s about you. Are you awake? Are you listening? Will you recognize great ideas when they land in your lap? And do you have the courage to champion great ideas in the face of little or no agreement?
Ingredient #3: Innovation can happen at any time and place
Percy LeBaron Spencer discovered the culinary potential of microwaves after finding a melted chocolate bar in his pocket – he had just walked past a microwave-emitting device called a magnetron at work, and he decided to find out what caused the chocolate bar to melt. He suspected it was the magnetron. Further experiments confirmed his suspicions, and Spencer persuaded his employer, Raytheon Manufacturing Co., to begin work on the microwave oven.
There was no microwave oven in the works when Spencer walked past the magnetron that day. What happened is that he noticed the melted bar, wondered how it happened and repeated the experience to satisfy his curiosity.
Everybody understands the importance of looking for innovative ideas to solve specific problems, but most managers are so busy solving the problem du jour or meeting the quarterly income goals that they miss it when innovation taps them on the shoulder. The cost - unexpected invention that could yield a brand new revenue stream with small start-up expenses.
To bring innovation to bear: Encourage employees to engage in open-ended exploration of the world around them and to be on the lookout for innovational inspiration at every moment of the day.
Ingredient #4: Most work environments
are structured to suppress innovation
In an effort to improve efficiency and productivity, managers at one automaker’s research and development facility consolidated stock rooms that had been located in each building. These stock rooms contained miscellaneous auto parts of all kinds – alternators, bolts, clips, gaskets, molded hoses, etc. These localized stock rooms had been an outstanding resource for innovative engineers who could walk across the floor and stop by the stock room in the middle of a project to see what parts might work in their current vehicle build. Consolidation left them with two options: know what part you need in advance and order it, or get in the car and drive to the consolidated stock room somewhere else on campus to examine the options.
From an efficiency perspective, there was a good reason for consolidating the stock rooms. When you look at the same action from the point of view of an innovator, the consolidation of stockrooms was a bad idea. It inadvertently made innovation cumbersome and inconvenient.
That’s just the tip of the ice berg. The very systems we create to manage growth, people and productivity often act as buckets of cold water on the innovative spirit. That’s why the commitment of the CEO is critical to create a culture of innovation.
Most companies have something in common with the human body – they are designed to kill off and reject foreign bodies. Innovators and ideas are foreign because they can alter the status quo.
Let’s be straight: there are lots and lots of people intimidated by innovators and their ideas. To sustain and expand an innovative culture, executives and managers must be at work every day to help ensure that ideas aren’t killed off like viruses. One of the most effective ways to do this is to concentrate on modifying and removing the obstacles to innovation. Sometimes those obstacles are operating practices and sometimes they are your own managers – both can be deadly to innovation.
To bring innovation to bear: Become an innovation pig. Spend a lot of time rooting around to discover the operating systems and people that suppress them. Sniff them out then dig them out of the muck. Modify the systems, get the people on board or send them off to a place where control is more important than discovery.
Ingredient #5: Innovation doesn’t care that you don’t have a budget
In the early 1980s Xerox abandoned plans for a graphical user interface system (GUI) because development was too expensive. Adding his own modifications, Steve Jobs turned the personal computer world on its head by introducing the first personal computer with drop down menus, folders, wastebaskets, overlapping windows, icons and the mouse
The watchword of innovation is Carpe Diem. Seize the day, or be overrun by someone who has more courage than you.
Set aside money for innovation in every department. The big secret of innovation is that it often costs far less than you think – and sometimes it costs nothing at all.
In the late 1990s GM Racing took on the challenge of bringing the stock back to stock car racing. The assignment? To make short track auto racing more competitive and affordable to race teams. Up to that point, American Speed Association race teams used hand-built engines that did not last a year and cost $30,000 apiece. The GM team started with the production LS1 engine. With minor modifications that included an array of off-the-shelf parts, they developed a competitive stock race engine that could be purchased by race teams for $12,000 and lasted an entire race season. These simple stock engines now power all vehicles in the ASA race series.
To bring innovation to bear: Do not permit concerns about money to derail ideas. The better an idea is, the easier it is to generate the resources to pull it off. Enthused people create partnerships, generate funds, look for ways to defray costs and find all sorts of ways to get things done for free.
Ingredient #6: Innovation doesn’t stay within boundaries
In January 2003, the University of Chicago and Raytheon Company released a study by sociologist Ronald S. Burd called, “The Social Origins of Good Ideas.” Burd and others say that most companies are comprised of people who operate in groups that share common backgrounds, training, points of view and experiences. We call them departments.
Burd asserts that people focus on activities inside their own group. This creates holes in the information flow between groups, or more simply, structural holes. In every organization, there are some people who move back and forth among groups, bridging the gap by integrating the thinking and advances in one group with that of others. At Ideaology, we call this Taprooting ™ . These brokers or taprooters ™ give companies enormous competitive advantage because they create value with projects that integrate otherwise separate ways of thinking or behaving.
Taprooters ™ can see the oak tree inside of an acorn. They are holistic thinkers who have the capacity to resolve multiple concerns that spill over the edges of their specialty and create opportunities for integration with other departments and sometimes brand new products.
In an age of specialization, Taprooters ™ help restore the holistic thinking characterized by such people as John Michael Kohler who purchased the Sheboygan Union Iron and Steel Foundry in the late 1800s in Wisconsin. The company got its start making cast iron and steel implements for farmers and iron crosses for cemeteries. One day in 1883, Kohler looked at a horse trough/hog scaulder and saw something else. He applied a baked enamel coating to the inside and added four legs. The result was whole new future for Kohler which became one of the world’s most prolific designers of bathtubs and plumbing.
Innovators often find themselves operating outside of the boundaries of their job descriptions. They want to learn as much as they can about everything. That information may get put to use immediately, or it will percolate, waiting for other pieces of an as yet unknown puzzle. When the other pieces become visible, the stored information is added and invention occurs, seemingly without effort.
To bring innovation to bear: Innovators must be permitted to wander around – into other departments, plants and even to places that seem irrelevant. Unexpected places are only irrelevant if you are operating on the premise that to find something new you should look in old places. When innovators are reined back in and their natural curiosity is constrained, innovation is suppressed. Make the boundaries between departments permeable so that ideas that cut across disciplines can be accepted and funded.
Ingredient #7: Innovation doesn’t play by your rules
What do John DeLorean, Lee Iacocca, Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs have in common with every other innovator? They don’t follow the rules but bend and redefine them. As a result, new things get created. To innovate, one must operate on the edge – not in the safe center.
In many work environments innovators are considered troublesome and difficult by their managers. They see an opportunity or problem, devise a solution and put it into play, often without asking permission because it makes such good sense. Some innovators are denied promotions and even punished for doing end runs around bosses who can’t and won’t entertain their ideas.
Here’s another interesting way in which innovation doesn’t play by your rules. It happens most frequently and prolifically when people are hungry and resources are in short supply. In organizations that perceive themselves to be resource rich – innovation goes wanting. Whether it is raw material, talent or even emerging technology, the philosophy becomes, “We’ll just buy it.” Resourcefulness is no longer of value.
To bring innovation to bear: Do whatever you can to stamp out the bigotry that we have about who can have a great idea. Asking how you can use what your company has in abundance is enormously powerful.
Ingredient #8: Innovation isn’t pretty
Amar Bose, founder of the Bose Corporation, knows that the road to innovation isn’t always paved or straight. His company has made breakthroughs in an astonishingly wide range of disciplines, including acoustics, aviation, defense, even nuclear physics. At times he has risked the entire company in pursuit of a particular idea. As it turns out, curiosity has not killed the company. It has caused Bose to flourish. Why? Bose believes in innovation. Most of the company’s annual estimated sales profits of $1.7 billion are pumped directly back into research.
Interestingly, innovation seems to have taken Bose wherever his curiosity has led. It hasn’t always led down the path of the company’s core business. The most recent invention from Bose is an automobile suspension system that uses electromagnets, not pneumatic or hydraulic technology.
It all began with a simple, naive question: what can car suspension do without hardware constraints? What if any force could be applied, at any time, between the body and the wheel?
Disregarding hardware assumptions and limitations, Bose focused on what kind of performance might be possible. A five-year research study revealed an enormous performance gap, one that couldn’t be closed by making adjustments to existing shock-absorber hardware.
Sometimes innovation looks like people aren’t doing their jobs, and the truth of the matter is, they aren’t. Innovators are busy creating the future.
To bring innovation to bear: Apply ample amounts of patience and persistence. Innovation doesn’t follow a straight path. Get out your machete – it may be necessary to cut a path to the doorsteps of people you never imagined in other departments and facilities.
Ingredient #9: Innovation disappears
Founded in 1888, yes, 1888, IBM defined workplace technology in the 20th century, from the first large vacuum-tube computer in 1952 through successive advances leading to the first personal computer in 1971. The company stood for cutting-edge innovation, unequaled service and smart management. When IBM stumbled a hundred years later, it was in danger of being toppled by hungry young companies nipping at its heels. More agile and flexible, new manufacturers cut into IBM's markets, making it look like a lumbering giant.
Today a whole host of names come to mind when it comes to computer hardware and software. IBM usually isn’t among them. What happened? Simply put, innovation disappeared. IBM is now at work putting innovation back at the heart of everything it does. How? By fostering and sharing ideas.
To its credit, IBM has reinvented itself, employing two of the most important principles outlined in this article. The company’s future rests solidly in he notion that there is no shortage of ideas. They are at work Taprooting the best ideas in the marketplace, joining forces with people operating on the edge of new thinking.
The vast majority of Americans labor in companies in which efficiency and productivity have become cornerstones. After an initial rush of innovation when a company is founded, most organizations settle into business-as-usual management. Efficiency becomes the watchword. It guides the actions of management, formulation of strategic plans, and development of policies that direct the behavior of everyone from the top down. Introducing anything new becomes extremely difficult because the environment is conditioned to snap back to that to which it is accustomed.
Does that mean that each of our companies has just one shot of innovation? Absolutely not. The businesses in which innovation persists and flourishes are those that continue to fuel the flame. They tend the fire, adding logs or air as necessary, never turning their backs or imagining that the job is done.
To bring innovation to bear: Invest whatever time, resources and money it takes to focus your managers’ attention on activities that promote innovation.
Ingredient #10: Innovation can beget innovation
What if innovation isn’t something that comes along once a business cycle or a lifetime? Imagine an environment in which innovation is constant. Sound like a pipe dream? It probably does because once most people achieve a success, they turn it into a process and churn out that product or service until the initial competitive advantage has eroded. At that point, cutting corners on quality or manpower is employed to maintain profitability.
Perhaps establishing an innovative culture takes the same qualities that are needed to become a karate master. In the Korean martial art of Taekwon Do a master is someone who has a fifth degree black belt or higher. It takes an average of three years to achieve a first degree black belt so masters are those who have trained intensively for 15 years or more.
What do Taekwon Do masters know that can be applied to produce ongoing innovation? They know that the more they learn the more there is to learn. Masters are humble, passionate students. Their primary goal is that of discovery.
There are five “ingredients” in the art of Taekown Do: spirit, balance, focus, speed and power. Beginning students, anxious to receive a black belt, think that all they need is power. The fascinating thing about power is that it is completely dependent upon the other four ingredients. Without spirit, balance cannot be achieved. One must have spirit and balance to gain focus. Speed comes on line for students who already have ample supplies of spirit, balance and focus. And power? It is the result of bringing the other four ingredients to bear.
The same thing is true with a culture of innovation. Attend to the first nine ingredients and the 10 th, a culture of innovation, will appear. All it takes is the commitment to become a master of the amazing art of innovation. Innovation that flourishes is a real possibility for companies with executives and managers who are willing to become its dedicated students. When it comes to innovation, it’s what we don’t know and what we can discover that count.
Right about now, you may be saying, “This isn’t rocket science. I know this.” Yes, you do. The path to a 5 th degree black belt is also easy. The student trains and practices, trains and practices and trains and practices. And one day, if he or she does it long enough, the five ingredients become integrated into the consciousness. Then, and only then, will innovation have become the cornerstone of a corporate culture.
Copyright Ideaology, 2005
Sue McPhail is an Accredited public relations counselor. She worked in journalism, advertising and public relations agencies as well as the entertainment field before establishing Ideaology, a company dedicated to marketing and innovation. Sue holds a second degree black belt in the Korean martial art of Taekwon Do and is a certified scuba diver. Her husband, Mark,is one of America’s best known experts in high performance hot rods. He has been instrumental in the development of a wide array of innovative engines and components. They live in Troy, Michigan. Their five-year-old daughter, Zora, attends a Waldorf School – a worldwide educational network dedicated to cultivating creative and critical thinkers.
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