Inspiration is Not the Key to Innovation

by Drew Marshall

Innovation-capable Cultures Demand Respiration

by Drew Marshall

Inspiration is Not the Key to Innovation“The essence of a creative culture is openness, curiosity, connecting, collaborating, and courage.” – A.G. Lafley

When faced with the challenge of creating a vibrant, innovation-capable culture, many organizations focus their efforts almost entirely on the front end of innovation. Their focus implies that innovation begins and ends with ideation, and their efforts extend little beyond the generation of vast numbers of ideas. Recently, A.G. Lafley, the former CEO of Proctor and Gamble (P&G), spoke at length at the tenth World Business Forum in New York City, about what it took for innovation to be revitalized in the company during his tenure. While the fuzzy front end received attention, it was not the only area of focus. He noted that for innovation to be truly successful, it had to become something the organization lived and breathed. It was not only about the inspiration necessary for a good idea but the habits formed by making innovation processes stable and robust enough that they could be relied upon for the long-term.

The proof of his approach is evident: under Lafley, P&G’s sales doubled, profits quadrupled, and the company’s market value rose by over $100 billion.

Yet organizations continue to believe that if they can only find the right idea, the perfect brainwave, the single market-changing invention, their futures will be bright and rosy. There’s a reason they call it the front end of innovation; there’s a whole back end to innovation that requires effort and discipline and care for the value conceived of in the beginning to actually have any real value.

Inspiration is just a start

“Courage is the missing innovation ingredient for most CEOs.” – A.G. Lafley

Consider the ideas that serve as the basis for innovation. The mysteries of creativity and inspiration are the subjects of countless books. It’s important to generate new ideas and, perhaps more importantly, it’s fun. This is why many organizations focus on the notion that they need to make room for creativity so that innovation will flourish. Little do they realize that for innovation to truly flourish, the organization itself needs to rally around the support of innovation. That means everything from the generation of ideas to their evaluation, their prioritization and selection, to their testing and assessment and their eventual, planned-for, operation. An innovation-capable enterprise doesn’t only pay attention to the seed of an idea, they nurture that notion until it thrives of its own accord.

Let’s be clear: the reasons so many organizations choose to focus on the creation of new ideas are: a) it’s fun, and b) the effort involved is minimal when compared to all the associated activities required to afford it a chance of success. The realization that there is so much more required beyond ideation demands a fundamental rethinking of innovation in the enterprise. It’s not that businesses need to dismantle everything that they have in place. To become innovation-capable, they must approach and rethink their existing business processes and systems so that they can use them in fresh ways.

As the whole process of innovation becomes clearer, the standard operational concerns regarding quality, productivity, efficiency, supply, sales, marketing, and human performance become enhanced. It takes a certain amount of courage to address all these necessary elements for building an organization’s capability to support innovation. To create new ideas without the means to enact them is like lighting match after match, expecting them to result in a fire. There has to be fuel and a structure in place, and yes, perhaps an accelerant for anything substantial to be created.

Invention is a poor substitute for meaningful solutions

“If you don’t understand your customer you cannot serve them.” – A.G. Lafley

The inventiveness of humankind cannot be underestimated. But the ability to invent does not immediately confer with it the capacity for innovation—to develop a novel solution resulting in the generation of value. Take the wonderful inventiveness on display in Japan. Not that this country is the only home of the wacky idea, but they seem to offer the best illustrations of their wackiness. After a casual survey, you will find on offer: a hay fever hat (complete with toilet-paper roll dispenser); cockroach-swatting flip-flops with an extendable handle; and a fresh air mask that requires its wearer to put a plastic bag over his or her head attached to a potted plant (also in a plastic bag.) Now, sales figures aren’t available, but it can be assumed that a number have been sold. Yes, zero is a number.

For an invention to be truly innovative, it has to meet a specific need, one that a customer (or group of customers, preferably) will be happy for you to meet. Innovation demands solutions that are meaningful, and to do that, it will require effort over time, not generated from a one-off exercise;. Lafley noted that for P&G, it meant getting the customer involved in co-creating solutions.

“Innovation is the creativity or spark combined with the connection of unlikely things, a discipline about managing it, the insight to weed out eighty percent and will to feed the remainder.” – A.G. Lafley

Together the customer and P&G team members explored different approaches to a challenge that were iterative and required an ongoing exchange of information and ideas. Where invention requires a momentary inspiration, innovation is the process of defining challenges, observing customers in order to form targeted insights, framing opportunities to explore, and developing sets of ideas that can be tested via experiments and prototyping. It is a process of divergent and convergent thinking and action in a cycle over time that achieves innovation results.

Innovation is a living, breathing process

“Innovation brings discipline to creativity.” – A.G. Lafley

To achieve the breakthrough differences in solutions that most organizations look for in their innovations, the process of innovation must be attended. Outcomes depend strongly on how innovation strategy is framed and how that strategy is aligned to the operational infrastructure of the organization. Leaders play a significant role in framing the strategy and that alignment, and if it’s missing, innovation dies off quickly. It requires a disciplined vision and a will to act that is often absent, especially in those organizations who profess a desire to innovate but who cannot seem to get their act together to deliver.

“Discipline in vision—see what you need to free up in resources in order to grow.” – A.G. Lafley

Over time, with that leader discipline and operational focus, comes an organizational resilience that will enable an enterprise to reach beyond the commonplace. It will create a foundation from which risks can be taken and through which the opportunity to learn will be greater. If a company chooses to stick to the standards of its industry, the accepted norms for competition and product or service delivery, it may hope for a groundbreaking invention. That hope may be fond, but rarely fulfilled.

An organization who understands that innovation is far more than just an initial idea will work to breathe life into its early attempts. They understand that it is a process of effort applied over time— not a one-shot deal. They also recognize that an organization must support innovation across all functional areas, and that it is a participatory exploration, not the domain of a lone hero. Inspiration is not enough; unless ideas breathe, the wait for innovation will leave you blue in the face.


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Drew MarshallAndrew [Drew] Marshall is the Principal of Primed Associates, LLC, a consulting firm based in Princeton Junction, New Jersey focused on improving the culture of innovation within their clients.