Enhance Productivity and Efficiency with Stephen’s Innovation Insights

Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

I previously started posting the 40 strategies from my Best Practices are Stupid book. But I completely forgot to include the introduction. So I am going back to that for this post. As you read this and the other chapters, please remember that this book was published back in 2011. Although the principles remain the same, some aspects have evolved since then. Enjoy!


On April 20, 2010, the environment was dealt a horrific blow. On that day, the Deepwater Horizon oilrig exploded, spewing as much as 180 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf Coast of the United States. It took 87 days to cap the gushing wellhead.

In the weeks following the explosion, scientists, movie stars, and concerned citizens tried to devise ways to slow the flow. But workable solutions were hard to find and implement, as the well was nearly a mile below the surface of the ocean. Repeated attempts failed.

In an effort to find better solutions, the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command, spearheaded by BP, launched a website where anyone could submit their ideas in an online suggestion box. According to USA Today, the website received nearly 125,000 ideas; 80,000 suggestions had to do with plugging the leak and 43,000 on ways to clean up the oil.

Of these ideas, 100 were deemed as having some merit and a couple dozen were tested.

On the surface, this might appear to have been a successful endeavor; BP was able to gather lots of possible ideas to help end the disaster.

For a company that stood to lose billions of dollars in cleanup costs, relief payouts, and lost sales due to bad publicity, this approach might indeed have been a good strategy.

But the resources necessary to respond to this type of disaster typically don’t exist within most organizations. Although a workable solution may have been found using this strategy, it is unclear if that was the case. Regardless, consider how many people it would take to evaluate thousands of ideas. If one person could evaluate an idea in 30 seconds (which is optimistic, especially for a technically complex issue like this) and could dedicate 40 hours a week to the task, it would take over a half a year to evaluate that many submissions, a significant investment for any company.

With an innovation strategy like this, finding a useful idea is like finding a needle in a haystack. Or more accurately, it is like finding a needle in a stack of other needles.

Unfortunately, this innovation strategy is what many well-intentioned companies use in their quest to be more innovative. They operate under the misguided belief that getting more ideas leads to better innovation. Organizations that use this approach spend a lot of their time sorting the wheat from the chaff. And sadly, most of the ideas are chaff.

As this book will reveal, you don’t want more ideas. You want to focus your energies on finding solutions to pressing problems that enable your company to be more innovative. In fact, I’ll teach you why the key to innovating successfully involves innovating efficiently.

The popular press and innovation gurus alike often provide well-worn examples that muddy the waters on how to approach the innovation process.

Google reportedly lets its employees use 20 percent of their time to develop new ideas. “PhDs and other smarty pants agreed to hand over their brains to the search giant for four days of the week and, in return, they were given the fifth to work on any project of their fancy.” Many experts hold this up as an effective way to innovate. In actuality, this investment was designed to help Google win the “war for talent,” and did little in the way of generating new revenue streams. In spite of the huge investment, 97% of their revenues still come from advertising, the same way they have always made money.

3M uses a similar strategy, giving employees 15% of their time to explore. When discussing the 15% rule, someone from 3M once told me, “Which 15%? I work 60 hours a week and there’s no time for my 15%.” The answer appears to involve working weekends, as Les Krogh, retired senior vice president of Research and Development once said, “If 3Mers have to get something done, they’ll do it. They’ll take their 15 percent on Saturdays or Sundays, if need be.”

Admittedly, their approach has indeed produced some amazing innovations. But will this strategy work for your organization? Both Google and 3M benefit from a highly motivated workforce that is probably more ambitious than employees in most organizations.

So is there a more efficient way for you to innovate?

Allowing employees to dedicate 15% to 20% of their time on the innovation efforts of their choosing is akin to the infinite monkey theorem: if you give an infinite amount of monkeys an infinite number of typewriters, they would eventually write War and Peace. The belief is that if you give employees enough time to tinker around and develop enough harebrained ideas, they will eventually find the next big innovation (and no, I am not suggesting that your employees are monkeys).

Although this might yield new ideas, it is hardly an efficient way to innovate.

Let’s face it, the old models of innovation are broken, inefficient, and fail to produce results.

It’s time for you to be innovative about the way you innovate and apply some new thinking to your innovation process.

This book is comprised of forty tips designed to help you do just that. These tips are designed to help you innovate differently. Innovate more efficiently. Innovate in a more focused manner.

Some tips are intended to change the way you think about innovation. Others are designed to change how you innovate. Depending on your experience level, you may already be familiar with some tips, while others will be new concepts for even the most advanced innovation practitioners. Certain tips are mainly useful at an organizational level, whiles others are important concepts for all individuals to consider.

In some cases, you may not agree with my point of view. That’s ok! The objective of each tip is to get you and your team thinking. You don’t necessarily need to take what I say at face value. Challenge each concept. Discuss them. See how they apply to your organization. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for innovation. Pick and choose the tips that will have the greatest impact.

Although the tips are organized in a logical sequence, they can be read in any order and each stands on its own. The first series of tips introduce some of the most important concepts relating to “innovating the way you innovate,” and the remainder of the book is loosely organized around the components of innovation capability: process, strategy, measures, people, and technology:

  • Process: Most innovation efforts are ineffective and unfocused. To remedy this, you will be introduced to challenge-driven innovation, an efficient process for solving your most pressing issues and opportunities.
  • Strategy: If you don’t understand your customer’s latent desires, your innovation effort will be comparable to a wild goose chase. Armed with their true wants and needs, you can develop a powerful innovation strategy.
  • Measures: Your measurement systems may inadvertently be killing your innovation efforts. By making some simple changes to your motivation strategy, you can stimulate creativity and foster innovation.
  • People: Innovation is dependent on having the right people – with divergent points of view – in the right roles. The key is to treat each individual like an owner of the business, pushing decision making to the lowest levels of the organization.
  • Creativity: One aspect of the people dimension is competency. With innovation, one specific competency involves the ability to develop creative solutions. Therefore, although it is not a separate component of a capability, given its importance, I have dedicated an entire section techniques for generating new ideas and new solutions. These can be used in brainstorming sessions or as instructional aids for helping people be more creative. Although creativity is technically part of the “people” dimension of the innovation capability, given its importance, I have dedicated a section to these techniques.
  • Technology: Technology plays a critical important in finding solutions to challenges and enabling collaboration. Although this is a distinct component of the innovation capability, the world of technology is changing so rapidly. Therefore anything written in a book would be immediately obsolete. Therefore, this Appendix TK contains an overview of the technology landscape with the most up-to-date information found on our website.

I am always amazed by the high quality of people employed by companies around the world. I am even more amazed by how little most companies tap into the innovative potential of these employees. This book provides dozens of proven tips and techniques that will enable you to get the most out of your workforce.

Innovation is the key to long-term growth. Although many companies are enamored with utilizing best practices, as this book’s title suggests, duplicating what others are already doing relegates you to a continuous game of catch-up. Following in the footsteps of others is the fastest way to irrelevancy. Instead, create your own path. Find new and creative ways of staying ahead of the competition. Only through repeated, rapid, and efficient change can an organization survive and thrive in today’s volatile marketplace.

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