We tend to innovate by going off on an island, with lots of Post-its and flip charts, and we end up stuck on Brainstorm Island. How do we escape from Brainstorm Island?
Paddy Miller posed this question to the audience at the 2011 World Innovation Forum. In a riveting – and often hilarious – presentation, Miller made the case to try a different path for more effective innovation. He offered four key insights to chart a new approach for innovation architects.
Insight #1: Deal with the Disconnect
The number one reason innovation fails is lack of alignment between senior managers and those on the operational or project management level. As Miller explains it, there is a huge disconnect between the Higher Ups who talk about innovation and the people below them that have to actually do the innovation. Miller describes it as a pyramid with the top cut off. In order to successfully innovate, you need to recognize and deal with this disconnect. At Creative Realities, we accomplish this by starting our programs with an Innovation Diagnostic and Strategic Alignment sessions. However you manage it, you need to recognize and deal with the disconnect.
Insight #2: Innovation Skills
Miller says that innovation skills training usually focuses exclusively on brainstorming. The problem is that when people return to their day jobs, all the ideas and energy generated in the brainstorm meeting is quickly forgotten. Creativity becomes inactivity. Miller amusingly shared the wit and wisdom of an employee who said, “in my company, being called ‘creative’ is the kiss of death for your career.” Innovation efforts fall flat when brainstorming is the only skill taught. According to Miller, we should also be teaching implementation skills like how to get your project a foothold in the budget, how to handle corporate politics, and how to deal with management.
Miller’s solution is to forego brainstorming and instead operate by “Stealthstorming.” Stealthstorming basically means making your innovation project happen under the radar, within the system, and before anyone notices. As Miller put it, stealthstorming means, “not letting the Executive Vice President come up with a new idea that screws up your idea.” This does not mean innovating in secret, but it does mean taking the initiative, bootstrapping, and improvising. Miller points to the example of Jordan Cohen, creator of the groundbreaking PfizerWorks program, who engaged his boss, found an advisor, built a team, and tested the concept with a pilot group all before he had been given an official mandate from the top to innovate.
Insight #3: Look in the Past, Not the Future
The wheel was invented somewhere between 8,000 – 3,500 B.C. The Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock carried suitcases. Yet it was not until 1972 when somebody decided to stick four wheels on a piece of luggage. And it then took another 15 years until the rollaboard was perfected in its current two-wheel form. Miller uses this case to demonstrate how innovators get so caught up in trying to identify the next hot trend, but rarely connect past solutions to current problems. Miller suggests that history provides a lot of opportunities for innovators.
Insight #4: Don’t Find the Solution, Frame the Problem
Finally, Miller said that instead of taking the problem as a given and brainstorming solutions, innovators should think creatively about how to frame the problem differently. I went into this point in more depth in my recent post Reframing the Problem – Innovation in the Wine Industry.
It is time to stop viewing brainstorm sessions as a quick fix for innovation and start thinking about them as part of a more comprehensive, long-term innovation program. For more, check out the recent posts written by my colleague, Clay Maxwell, Corporate Innovation Groups: Innovators Paradise or Purgatory? and Is Brainstorming Broken?
Chris Dolan is a Business Innovationist at Creative Realities, Inc. the innovation management collaborative. You can follow him on Twitter @theChrisDolan.