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I read a headline recently ‘Photos: 10 supercomputers that are leading innovation around the world’.  For anyone raised in the age of the Terminator films, the thought of a computer leading innovation and making decisions leads us into a world of technical domination, fighting for our very survival. Computers the decision makers, humans the slaves! Less than ideal, but also something that is still only the domain of science fiction.

Okay, so I get that the article was commenting on the innovation that these supercomputers represent, but it got me wondering - do people understand that innovation is about the process of human thought? Taking threads of ideas, combining other people’s thoughts, collaborating and sharing ideas that further evolve, seizing on the gap, the opportunity; these are the very elements that, when harnessed, advance the genesis of an idea to foster and drive the benefits of innovation. Is this truly something we believe a computer can ‘lead’?  

Supercomputers process reams of data and make assessments based on logic. They don’t think. They can’t create links to foster innovation. Innovation is a humanistic rather than a technological capability. Why then do we attribute innovation to those most logical of mechanisms and devices?

Headlines like this appeal because we want innovation to be something that’s replicable and repeatable, easy to crank out, an innovation ‘sausage factory’. Something we can harness and control, like a business process or rule set that we can ask people to follow.  Are we therefore confusing evolution and improvement of process with innovation?

Innovation Pipeline Checklist

Harvard Business Review published an ‘innovation pipeline checklist’  in February 2015 which attempts to do what a supercomputer is programed to do; to create a replicable process through answering a series of questions; attempting to remove risk. But isn’t taking risk ‘the secret sauce’ of driving innovation and disruption? Having an idea so big and so ‘aha’ that you are passionate about taking that risk to begin with? 

So how do you manage risk and still build a culture of innovation?

1. Are you clear about the challenge you’re solving for?

Uber is an inspirational startup story, in the same vein as Airbnb. Built on the concept of the sharing economy, they both benefited from the social connective technology that these ideas needed to survive and thrive.  Both of these disruptions came about because of the people behind each of the ideas – looking at what was happening outside of their domain, absorbing the advice their supporters gave them, interpreting that advice and moving forward to evolve their idea into successful innovations. I doubt that any spreadsheet, checklist or supercomputer would ever have ‘thought’ that sharing a car or a house with strangers would be an innovative or supportable idea! I’d also wager that Uber didn’t set out thinking ‘let’s go and create a disruptive innovation today!’. It’s what happens as the idea takes hold and becomes the norm. 

2. Where do you source and leverage inspiration?

There are lots of fantastic examples of innovation driven off the back of inspiration from the things happening around us; connecting the dots to make the leap to a new paradigm. Uber: never being able to get a cab, yet seeing empty cars everywhere… how do we leverage available resources and make everyone a provider? Volvo: how do we think about our asset beyond the obvious, yes a car to get from A to B, but also a personal dropbox? When you or your team come up with possible ways to innovate in your organization, are you thinking about how you can leverage great ideas in play today? How they might apply for your organization, or your challenge?

3. Do you have the appetite to make the change?

It’s all well and good to come up with great ideas; enough alcohol and a chatty group around a dinner table can do that! But do you have the energy, the drive, to actually make the innovation happen. Consider this: historians estimate that there were approximately 52 versions of the typewriter as inventors sought a strong, workable model. In the end, it came down to three that persevered and developed models that met customers’ needs. The moral? Innovation isn’t always easy, but the only way to drive change is to stick at it.

Checklists and processes can be enlisted all you like once you have the ideas, but it’s the ideas that are the innovation. A business case to determine the relative merit of the idea and an outline of how to implement, sure, But it can’t be the only driver to moving forward with the idea. Guttenburg and the printing press, the 52 evolutions of the typewriter - a clear identifiable challenge, inspiration a-plenty, identifiable value - not so much. Without the ideas to start with, however, what are you checking or validating? 

Call to action: Write your Company’s obituary

Most companies are not about the business of invention. They just want to be better at what they do and ensure they remain relevant to their customers.  But here’s a secret. That’s where true disruption starts!  For business the question must be about how you get to the heart of the key challenge to solve.

Try this exercise with a group of people from across your organization; not necessarily your top level executives, more from the mid-levels that deal with both the management layer and those that focus on the delivery of your products or services.

Premise: The year is 2020 and your company has sadly passed away. What challenges, threats and missed opportunities led to its demise?

Do: Have your collected team each pen an obituary. Give it a catchy headline, a paragraph on the rise and fall and, finally, call out the three missed opportunities that were the final nails in the coffin. Have everyone read their obituaries and agree: what are the three key things you’d change to prevent that outcome. Finally, take the challenge to senior levels: if they could only solve three things, would these be the ones they’d focus on? If they agree, you have the genesis of a challenge that gives you all a focus from which to drive your innovation process. 

From the ashes rises the great phoenix!