Getting more from less has been one of the big drivers of invention and innovation throughout history. In today's troubled economic climate, innovation and effective decision-making is even more of an imperative.
Just as leaders are called upon to set standards for ethical behaviour, they should also be responsible for enhancing the willingness of people in organisations to embrace innovation. What is often overlooked is that this does not only refer to the acceptance and innovation of new products, processes, organisational structures or communication strategies, it also demands that attention be paid to their quality.
During tough times, the need for short-term fire-fighting means that thinking differently and identifying new opportunities are least likely to happen. Yet it is in these times when innovative thinking is most needed, not least because it is at this time that businesses are most at risk from disruptive innovation from competitors.
So even though the prevailing trading conditions in many markets are difficult and now may not seem to be the best time to encourage people to stop, think and reflect, this could actually be exactly what's needed to kick-start innovation efforts. The outcomes may be impossible to predict, but their impact could be enormous.
Two types of innovation
Study suggests that there are two types of innovation. The first builds on gradual improvements to established methods of operation. The second leads to radical change. The first improves, the second transforms.
Incremental innovation is the sort of activity that maintains or increases market share, often in response to market research and customer feedback. Radical innovation involves considering key aspects of a business from non-obvious, different, even seemingly perverse perspectives to reveal opportunities that were previously unrecognised.
Radical innovation leads to what Kuhn described as 'paradigm shifts' in that the prevailing rules no longer apply. By definition, we cannot perceive or reach an invention with the potential for radical innovation from where we are now.
Crucially, these innovations are not just restricted to products, services and processes, but can also transform organisational behaviour, structure and culture.
Whilst it may be important for organisations to refresh their offerings in order to remain competitive within existing markets and technologies, it is also important that they undertake more wide-ranging and free-thinking reviews of all the other aspects of their operations to ensure that opportunities previously unrecognised are not missed.
In understanding this there should be an imperative to access rather than thwart the innate talents of their people, because if they don't, they can be sure that some of their competitors will.
The process of innovation
The most important thing to remember about innovation is that it is far more than having a "eureka" moment and it is rarely the action of one individual. Innovation is a process that starts with the identification of a problem or opportunity and extends all the way through to the new innovation being implemented.
The belief that there should be no restrictions or barriers around innovation is a mistaken one as it is important to exclude suboptimal, poor quality ideas and concepts. For innovation to be most effective, it requires both 'pre-concept' preparations and 'post-concept' implementation strategies. Pre-concept activities can improve the quality of solutions whilst post-concept actions determine the efficiency of their innovation.
In a perfect world, innovation would be broken down into a simple but rigorous procedure. A definition phase that strips the problem down to its root causes so that they can be dealt with one at a time. A discovery phase that comprehensively explores this root cause and uses divergent thinking and storming to generate multiple solutions. Finally, a determine phase that sifts these ideas and comes up with a small number of viable alternatives.
In practice, though, pressure to seek a solution as quickly as possible means that we tend to neglect this crucial 'pre-concept' focus and look instead to the nearest emerging from previous experience or deployed by others. That's why the flow of new ideas and concepts into organisations is so often suboptimal.
Pre-concept innovation analysis also saves money because it helps to filter out unworkable concepts at an early stage when the sunk cost involved is quite low. Insufficient focus on problem definition, idea generation and concept selection often allows significant costs to be incurred before fundamental weaknesses that could have been detected much earlier are fully recognised.
Another problem organisations face is that rapid decision-making under pressure without sufficient advice or reflection is sometimes mistaken for effective leadership. It's not. It simply means that there is virtually no pre-concept focus and the existing reservoir of experience and ability present in the rest of the organisation is ignored.
And that's tragic, because the key thing about creativity and the generation of innovative ideas is that they are not the jurisdiction of a select few; they are open to everyone.
Entrepreneurship and innovation is incorrectly often ascribed to smaller growing businesses. But larger companies have as much of a need for an entrepreneurial culture as do their smaller counterparts. Whatever the size of the organization, its culture needs to encourage debate and the ability to challenge, taking a more organic view of sources of innovation to sit alongside top-down strategic views.
People at every level ought to be involved in strategic innovation and development. A culture of inclusiveness and collaborative decision making make it easier for an organisation to undergo swift change. 'Ownership' of innovation is crucial: change management is much more effective if the people involved have taken part in the strategy and the solution – they will be far more likely to buy into it.
There is little point focusing all the creative talent in one unit although there can be an argument for giving a set of individuals the responsibility for helping to deliver the skills necessary – innovation champions – and the HR function have an important role to play here.
Remember, too, that the most creative people are not necessarily those with the loudest voices: they may need to be sought out. Indeed, the case could be made that HR needs to be more ambitious and rise above the role of guardian of best practice to a more strategic level when it comes to identifying and fostering the potentially enormous latent and previously unrealized creative talent within organisations.
A culture of enquiry is also essential and again this is something that everyone within the organisation can become involved in. Companies such as 3M, Google and John Lewis are prime examples of companies synonymous with such an atmosphere of innovation and change and a continuous aspiration to anticipate the next wave.
Companies like these not only encourage innovative ideas and people within; they also act as magnets for ideas and people from outside – and that includes refugees from their less innovative competitors.