This is the first in a series of bi-monthly articles I will be writing for Forbes.com.
In an attempt to stop the flow of the oil after the Deepwater Horizon oilrig explosion, the Unified Command turned to crowdsourcing to find a workable solution. Concerned citizens were invited to submit ideas. And that they did. They reportedly received nearly 123,000 submissions, of which only a dozen were deemed as having any value. This means that 99.99 percent of the time spent thinking about the problem, submitting solutions, and evaluating them was a waste of time.
They learned that asking for ideas, is a bad idea.
A major UK bank tried a similar approach, asking their employees for suggestions on how to improve the business. After receiving several thousand ideas, and implementing none, the entire innovation team was fired. Many other organizations met a similar fate using this type of suggestion box approach.
There must be a better way.
Innovation is the buzzword du jour. Although nearly every executive says they want it, there is rarely a clear definition of “it.” The mandate to innovate is ambiguous and confusing at best.
As a result, companies are drowning in a sea of bad ideas, irrelevant investments, and wasted energy. Most innovation efforts yield a painfully low return.
What if you could boost your organization’s innovation ROI ten times over the traditional methods?
You can. In my Forbes.com column, over the coming months I will share some radical perspectives on innovation that provides equally radical results. For example, I will explain why:
• ‘thinking outside the box’ reduces levels of creativity.
• expertise is the enemy of innovation.
• making innovation everyone’s responsibility can dissipate your investments.
• a reliance on big data and analytics can give you misleading information.
• a myopic focus on organizational goals paradoxically reduces your ability to achieve them.
The Idea Antidote
So how can we better define this nebulous concept of innovation?
It is an organization’s ability to adapt, evolve, and change repeatedly and rapidly. Unlike common misconceptions, it is not about new products, new processes, new services, or new business models. These contribute, but are not the end game.
And as we learned from the opening examples, innovation is certainly not about ideas, opinions and suggestions. Everyone has an opinion. And most are not very useful or valuable.
The antidote is challenge-centered versus idea-driven innovation. Instead of starting with an idea, the innovation process should begin with an issue, problem, challenge, or opportunity. Once this has been clearly defined, good solutions can follow. This focuses your energy on what matters most, giving you results quickly with minimal wasted effort.
Stated another way, to find the best answers you first need to make sure that you are asking the right question. What problem do you really need to solve? What is important? What will have the greatest impact on your organization? What will set you apart from the competition?
As human beings we are wired to jump to solutions. We want to get things done as quickly as possible. However taking the time to construct the right question in the right way will be critical for long-term success. So, for now, ditch your suggestion boxes and brainstorming sessions. These have little leverage and rarely product exceptional results.
The Three-Step Innovation Formula
Asking the right challenge is only the first step toward increasing your innovation ROI tenfold; you must also ask those questions the right way to the right people.
Step 1: Ask the Right Challenge – The ‘right challenge’ is one that is strategically aligned. That is, if you solve this problem/opportunity, it will create incredible growth for the business. The key is focusing on opportunities that set you apart from the competition. In other words, “innovate where you differentiate.”
Step 2: Ask the Challenge the Right Way – 10x innovation also requires you to “frame” the challenge in ‘the right way.’ If your question is too abstractly defined, you will end up with abstract (and irrelevant) solutions. Conversely, if the question is too narrowly focused, your solutions may be inconsequential. As Einstein reputedly said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions.”
Step 3: Ask the Challenge to the Right People – The last part of the formula is about ‘finding’ solutions the fastest way possible. Although we typically turn to experts to develop solutions, quite often domain expertise is the very thing that prevents breakthrough thinking. Studies prove that connecting with different areas of expertise is what drives breakthroughs. For example, learning how laundry detergent makes whites whiter led to the development of a new type of whitening toothpaste.
Over the coming months, we will dig deeper into specific examples and techniques for increasing your ROI. But in the meantime, bury those old, inefficient methods. Instead of an idea-driven approach, adopt a challenge-centered one and watch your innovation efforts thrive.