3 Key Skills that Enable Innovation

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 03-01-11

I have a new post published on Blogging Innovation. See the full article on that site.

by Jamie Flinchbaugh

Innovation 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 customer’s 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.