3 Key Skills that Enable Innovation

by Jamie Flinchbaugh

Innovation ChecklistInnovation is obviously a major attribute in the competitiveness of a company (or a government, or a school, or an individual). There are many ways to achieve innovation, and no one aspect will be enough. There is no question that sometimes one very smart person can generate incredible innovations. However, this isn’t very replicable or sustainable.

Being innovative is not a behavior. It’s not something on your to-do list between picking up dry cleaning and writing performance reviews. You can’t declare Monday to be Innovation Day and expect that result. Innovation is the by-product of plans, processes, people, behaviors, and skills.

Many of you may know me as the co-founder of the Lean Learning Center. What does that have to do with innovation? How can the skills taught in lean organizations enable innovation? When done well, lean leads to innovation at all levels of the organization. It may not lead to world-changing innovations like the Post-It note or the iPod, but it certainly will produce innovations that improve products, delight customers, and strengthen performance. Lean is not about waste elimination, despite many common definitions that say so.

We often assume that most innovations come from teams that are dedicated to it. Perhaps specific, focused innovations do come from such teams, but not the bulk of innovations that make a difference in sustainably competitive organizations. You never know where the next innovation might come from. The more broadly distributed innovative activities are, the more likely you will see big wins. The more balls you put into play, the more likely you will see home runs. Many innovation books tell you to put all your innovation into one team. This makes innovation easier to manage, under the belief that managing that team is, in turn, managing innovation. But, to increase your chances for success, put innovation into every person.

Three fundamental lean behaviors drive innovation: customer focus, problem solving and learning.

Innovation begins with filling the needs of people, either current or future customers. When lean companies focus on providing value, they get curious about the met and unmet needs of customers. This focus drives these organizations to make their customers’ problems their own and to see value where others don’t.

Problem solving is a core capability, because it drives us to engage problems that others might ignore. It drives us to dig deeper. This deeper exploration leads to new insights into problems. Problem solving starts with good, focused problem statements. When we take the problem statement for granted, we might miss a wide range of opportunities.

Learning is about experimentation. It is the constant connection between cause and effect. Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I have merely found a thousand ways that won’t work.” Each experiment was an investment in his knowledge. Learning leads to innovation and invention. But learning is a process and a skill, and there is a large difference between experimentation and “trying stuff.”

When we put these three behaviors together – customer focus, problem solving and learning through experimentation – innovation is the outcome.

It is important to build these behaviors, and the risks that come along with innovation, into the organization. This requires encouragement and recognition. If people are afraid to experiment because they get punished if their experiment fails, experimentation and the learning that goes with it will stop. Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, said, “Failures are not something to be avoided. You want to have them happen as quickly as you can, so you can make progress quickly.”

It’s also important to encourage the behaviors that go with innovation, and not just the outcomes. If you only recognize big outcomes, then people will only make the effort when they feel they are likely to achieve a big outcome. If we encourage the right behaviors, we will see more of those behaviors, which in turn generates to the outcomes desired.

Innovation is possible in any organization. You don’t need a specialized department. You don’t need a corporate initiative. Innovation can begin anywhere, even with yourself.

I hope to explore these skills and their connection to innovation more deeply in future posts.

Join the innovation community

Don’t miss an article (2,300+) – Subscribe to our RSS feed and join our Innovation Excellence group!

Jamie FlinchbaughJamie Flinchbaugh is co-founder of the Lean Learning Center, and co-author of the book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road. You can find his blog at www.JamieFlinchbaugh.com.

No comments

  1. After a few decades with GE, it is difficult not to feel exhausted with all the management focus on innovation. GE even changed from “Bring Good things to Life” to “Imagination”. It just does not stop. Submit your ideas and we will fund them, submit ideas, submit your ideas, blog your ideas, if only we could communicate better. To stretch the immortal words of Madeline Kahn “I’m tired of innovation talk”.

    As your blog point out, Innovation happens. It happens despite the circumstances. Innovation is not one great idea that looks wonderful the moment some one mouths it. Hell no. That is so rare that I never saw it.

    Ideas come up in a raw form and need incubation that could last years. It will buzz in the head of the innovator and perhaps their colleagues. Colleagues are really important – as many great innovations are the union of two little innovations. (another reason why blind outsourcing is the death of innovation). It is a rare manager who appreciates a raw idea and help develop it – management consumes finished product on a Power Point slide. Raw ideas! ha!

    Management will push a good “starter” idea in the wrong direction and kill it. The moment a VP appreciates an idea, an industry of sycophants springs up to lead us to the promised land. Unfortunately,most ideas are bad and would have died a natural death but for the fact that a clueless senior manager picked up on it. Hence my conclusion, management should stay out of innovation.

    Now you might say, if management does not encourage innovation, there will be no innovation. Try the other angle: if management stays out, more innovation will happen. In all my years at GE, innovators were more likely to be punished than rewarded, because they came with un-GE “promotability” traits.

    GE innovates – but my experience is that it does so because the management tends to leave you alone. Because GE mangers move around a lot, it helps innovation because they do not know the workings of the groups and they cannot influence them too much. It is critical for innovation to move senior manger around so that they do not start picking on the “innovative grunts” who are totally unlike them.

    GE also pushed responsibility down the chain – one of Jack Welch’s mandates and why in GE he still commands respect. Let the “grunts” decide on innovation and keep management out of it. Jack fired a lot of VPs and he was good at correcting his appointment mistakes. It was nice to see them come and go – encouraged us to hang in there when we got a bad one because we knew he would soon be gone.

    Bottom line – I realize consulting on Innovation is good business, but there is room for truly helping innovation by consultants working to keep management out of innovation.

    1. Management needs to stay out of innovation completely. Totally. Do not even mention the word.
    2. Management needs to stay out of evaluating innovation.
    3. Management needs to make no awards or publicize anything about innovation.
    4. Good managers stay out of innovation and wait until the parade is all assembled and starts moving and then they take their ordained space at the head of the parade.

    With respect to the other point in this blog about encouraging behaviors: Good Luck! This needs to happen even before children reach kindergarten. Most companies still believe the garbage B.F.Skinner pushed about behavior modification. Why is it that corporations are decades behind when it comes to psychology? I think we could sell Posture Shots and “firm handshake meters” to corporations.

  2. I agree that innovation cannot be “mandated”. Problem solving is an innate skill we all posess, although the tools that are available help to facilitate the problem solving process.

    From my own experience, I can attest that some of my best ideas and innovations were seemingly spontaneous. This is not to say that a good idea just came out of nowhere. To the contrary, I contend that my subconscious mind was continuing to work away at problems that remained unresolved – an extension of the phenomenon also known as the Zeigarnik Effect.

    This past weekend, a radio talk show was reflecting on song writers who literally wrote songs in their sleep. Paul McCartney was one who needed convincing that he wrote an original song because he swore he “heard it somewhere before”.

    Excellent post and great insights. Thanks for sharing.

  3. “Ie Student” – I agree that management can choke off good innovation when it gets too process oriented. I have a question though – what happens when an innovation needs money to get to the next stage? Does everyone get a blank checkbook?

    On behavior change, you are right if you’re talking about changing someone’s personality. But there is no question that behaviors can be shifted inside an organization. I’ve done it many times as a leader inside companies, and helped other leaders do it inside their companies as well.

    “Redge”, yes, most innovation is seemingly spontaneous. But, as it’s been said, “luck favors the prepared.” There are things that can be done to be ready when those spontaneous moments arise, so that we don’t let it pass by unnoticed.

  4. Jamie, I agree that “luck favors the prepared.” It is this very preparation that allows our minds to work out solutions even sub-consciously.

    As such, I understood the three behaviors to serve as inputs to feed the creative thinking process that ultimately yields the much sought after innovation.

    I recall from my own experience having to let a problem “incubate” before attempting to formulate a solution. Perhaps this isn’t so much as searching for the idea, but ultimately framing the problem in such a way that solution can be found.

  5. Redge, you are right, the behaviors are inputs. They do not, by themselves, create innovation. It is not a formula, as I don’t believe there is a formula that exists that create innovation as an output. But these 3 skills, if developed, help enable the organization to increase it’s level of innovation.

  6. On the question of money for innovation, lets follow up with some thoughts.

    – Small scale innovation is what can be managed within operating budgets of a group while large scale bet-the-company inovation requires chief executives and glamor (and consultant focus).

    – I contend that the bread and butter of success for organizations is small scale innovation. Jack Welch made this his cornerstone with “workouts” – a better way to do your job every day.

    – Every organization has an operating or project budget. This is the pool where innovation ought to be funded. Funding limitations are a critical part of innovation – funding loss is the mother of invention. Innovators innovate within draconian financial limits – that’s real innovation.

    In the case of large scale “innovation” project – iPad or a new air plane are clearly areas where not just lower level management, but top VPs are involved. That may be the reason why so many fail. Senior management needs to be involved and it is a rare senior manager that can innovate on a large scale. That’s why Steve Jobs is revered.

    Even for these large projects, success is not JUST in the “big” idea but its execution – and then we are back to small groups and the thousands of little innovations that make the iPad wonderful. Each innovation was perhaps never budgeted but crept in as the elements of the iPad were developed.

    Large projects do comprise of many small projects and the funding is not for “innovation” but for execution of required functionality. Innovation is in how the teams execute. There is no BUDGET for innovation.

  7. Jamie, I agree the three skills do not, by themselves, create innovation. I didn’t intend to suggest that a formula existed, how our minds think and process information remains a mystery. Perhaps the word “formulate a solution” threw off the discussion.

    So, as we now agree, the 3 skills do help to increase the level of innovation.

Leave a Reply