What Accelerates Innovation?

by Jeffrey Phillips

Lately I’ve been reading about the efforts to build or create innovation accelerators. Universities, businesses and even cities and regions are talking about innovation and the need to create accelerators or innovation enablers.

I’m glad that everyone is excited about innovation, and that they want to provide the means to help it flourish and help it move more quickly. But the thing is, like most late arrivals, they’ve got the wrong end of the stick as the Brits like to say.

Buildings, programs, artificial meet-ups and other activities that are being put into place as accelerators aren’t going to accelerate innovation. These solutions will accelerate interaction, perhaps, but not innovation.

To accelerate innovation, we need to do a couple of important things that are being overlooked or ignored:

First, describe an important or interesting problem or opportunity.  Most cities and businesses are overwhelmed by opportunities and problems, yet they spend little time adequately defining and describing these problems or opportunities so that innovators can place them in context and begin to imagine solutions.  Rather, we build buildings or create “accelerators” where people work on random ideas that have little importance to the people who built the accelerators.

Second, describe the benefit to the organization, business or community of an incremental change and/or a radical or disruptive change. What are the outcomes we seek?  Without a clear understanding of the potential end game, innovators and other participants will end up on one end of the spectrum or the other, either creating very marginally different ideas from the status quo, or seeking to overthrow everything and start afresh immediately. Neither of these is practical or valuable, especially at the start.

Third, give the innovators and entrepreneurs a stake in the outcome. This is especially true in business settings.  What rationale do innovators have to work on interesting or disruptive ideas if they have no stake in the outcome? We ask them to take risks through the innovation process for a small reward or some recognition if the idea succeeds, and the potential they might lose their job if the innovation fails. This is why there is far more innovation in startups and entrepreneurial companies and programs than large companies.

Fourth, encourage exploration and experimentation. Elon Musk can talk about hyperloops and tunnels under Los Angeles because he can afford to experiment and explore new ideas. We allow successful people and visionaries that freedom. We restrict that freedom from everyone else.  A good example is the difference in startup culture in Silicon Valley and the East Coast. In Silicon Valley the fact you’ve lived through a startup that crashed and burned makes you more credible.  In the East Coast it can make you a pariah when seeking new funding.

Fifth, consider who the judges are. Frequently when incubators, innovation accelerators or other programs or enablers are created, the “judges” of such activities are often the more established leaders in the community. These are the people who would scoff at Uber or AirBnB, who don’t understand texting or emojis, who are uncomfortable with ideas or solutions that upset the status quo.  So they reward and recognize small, incremental ideas that align to existing infrastructure and investments and ignore and fail to fund really interesting or radical ideas.

Finally, don’t worry about the money. If the innovators have any marketing or social media savvy, they’ll be able to publicize their ideas broadly and quickly with little cost. There’s enough money around that good ideas and good teams will attract funding, plus, working under tight constraints makes innovators face the real world and forces them to be more creative. Money will come into play when the idea or solution needs to scale. Only then will the idea need to move to where the money is – and that’s when a business or community will be forced to make decisions. Startups move to Silicon Valley because that’s where the funding is in the later rounds.  If you want to be a real regional player in the innovation and entrepreneurial world, create or foster a critical mass of venture capital, which can encourage startups to stay local. Then perhaps you can build a critical mass.

The focus on accelerating innovation is a good one, but in many cases the solutions are the wrong ones.

Buildings, programs, incentives are all helpful and may accelerate some portions of the innovation process, but the facts above: critical mass, evaluation and judgement, easy exploration and cultural acceptance, clear definitions of the problem or challenge and having a stake in the outcome are most important.

image credit: startups.co.uk

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Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes, and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose. Follow him @ovoinnovation

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