By Dominic Irvine, Founding Partner, Epiphanies LLP

“We need to become more innovative.” We must have read this a hundred times in various articles, books, newspapers and magazines. And of course it’s true. It must be hard to do given so much has been written….but is it really so difficult?

Thinking about it led us to three suggestions: One relating to the individual. The second a team approach and the third an organisational perspective.

Come into the kitchen

A large part of our work involves taking abstract concepts and finding a way of translating them into the practical things people can do to improve their performance. This can take quite a bit of thinking through and often involves several iterations of design before we pilot the programme. We used to be really wary of getting the customer involved too early in the process for two reasons. First, we didn’t want them to see how much head scratching went into the process, and secondly, we didn’t want them to think we might not be able to do what was asked.

Over the last few years we’ve got more adventurous in getting the customer involved earlier and earlier with better and better results. In our business we call it ‘inviting people into the kitchen.’ This is because if you present people with a finished meal they have only two choices - accept it or reject it. Get them involved in the dish you are making and they are far more likely to accept the final product - because they were inextricably involved in its creation.

It seems we were onto something. According to a great piece of research by Buell, Kim and Tsay reported in the Harvard Business Review, “Cooks make tastier food when they can see their customers.” It seems that customers rated the service better when they saw the chefs at work. The explanation offered is that because you can see the effort being made you are more appreciative. Seeing the customers enjoy their food motivated the Chef to raise their game. To quote the authors: “This work highlights the humanity of interactions, of service. There’s something refreshingly human about the idea that just seeing each other can make us more appreciative and lead to objectively better outcomes.”

There’s a lesson in this research for us about innovation. Ideas are created by people. Spending time with others allows us to appreciate their efforts as well as gain insights from their perspective. In our experience people really do want to do a great job. There’s nothing like experiencing something at first hand to get a good sense of the challenges they face. Appreciation and respect are a sound basis for collaboration to develop new ideas.

The real team

One of the overwhelming lessons in improving your chances of being more innovative is to build connections within and outside of your organisation. The richer and more diverse the range of inputs the more likely it is innovative ideas will emerge. This approach is not new nor particularly radical.

We’d like to suggest that tapping into that broader network is easier than you might think. For example, who would you think of if we asked you to think about your team at work? Is it your colleagues? It was during a long conversation one Friday evening with a client, the Group HRD of a well-known company, that she had an epiphany. She realised that whilst she had worked with many organisations over the years, the one group of people with whom she worked that had remained a constant are the team of advisors, facilitators and consultants who had helped her think through the challenge of how to tackle the issues in each of the organisations in which she had been employed. We realised the same was true of a number of other clients with whom we worked.

We should make more of these long term support networks, in particular how we better integrate outside knowledge with the internal experts in order to better generate new ideas. Think of it as an integrated network of trusted people internal and external to the organisation who come together based on specific needs to deploy their diversity of backgrounds and experiences to solve problems. The advantage of the external people is they know the client very well and have a breadth of experience they can bring to the table. The internal people have a deep understanding of the nuances of why things are the way they are and the challenges that will need to be overcome if things are to change. Together, they can innovate new solutions.

This inside – outside network can also be complemented by another influential source of ideas which is called open innovation. In the past, depending solely on internal R&D to produce innovative solutions was once considered a strategic asset and a competitive advantage. No longer! Many organisations have learned through hard financial experience that not all ideas can be identified within the organisation. Some successful companies such as Intel, Microsoft, Sun, Oracle, and Genentech conduct little basic research of their own and there are many other companies which rely purely on ‘other people’s ideas’ to achieve commercial success.

Open innovation is based upon the concept of an environment in which there is an abundance of knowledge and possibilities. Think of the research and practices developed in many organisations and the fact that much of this escapes into the wider market place. Add to this the extensive university research which is published in articles, and you begin to get an understanding of why there is a need to look outwards.

In our experience very few organisations manage to achieve this effectively - they want the input from outsiders as long as it fits with their perspective. As the saying goes, he who pays the piper calls the tune. However, when there really is a strong working relationships the outcomes can be phenomenal and it makes for extremely rewarding and engaging work. But it does require appreciation and respect of each other’s skills.

Fear of the unknown

Over the years we have run a great many innovation workshops where we have attempted to challenge the way people think in order to create new products or services. It almost doesn’t matter what exercise we use, the same two challenges almost always present themselves. The first is getting people to imagine “what if….”. Typically, this requires them to imagine some aspect of what they do is either no longer possible or vice versa. There seems to be a fear that imagining it might actually make it happen and the consequences of that often seem too much of a headache. To paraphrase Christopher Columbus “You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore”.

The second challenge is when delegates come into such sessions and focus on inputs rather than outcomes. For example, if the objective is increased sales of the product, they focus on the product rather than the objective which is increased sales. A product focus constrains you to packaging, content, structure etc. whereas a focus on sales allows you to incorporate a much wider perspective. The solution may lie in better social media campaigns or in the secondary packaging. With a focus on the product such issues will never get explored and yet they may offer cheaper, faster more effective opportunities for innovation.

Does this mean people are poor at thinking? No. We think it is the organisational context that drives anxiety about different possibilities and their consequences that constrains thinking. If we want people to think innovatively, we need to create the environment that encourages it. If you want people to come up with new ideas, think through how the organisation needs to respond to those new ideas to give them a fighting chance. We need to appreciate their contribution and respect and address their fears and concerns.

Why we have different shops with different sized clothes

It always feels great when you find a garment in the right size, in a style you like and fit for the purpose intended. It’s incredibly frustrating when one of those elements is not quite met. It’s almost good enough but not quite. In helping organisations become more innovative we are struck by the very different needs each has. A brilliant article back in 2007, by Hansen and Birkinshaw and published in the Harvard Business Review, showed very eloquently how when it comes to innovation, different organisations have different needs. Naive attempts to apply a standardised innovation process will not succeed. Innovation can be thought of as a value chain that starts with ideation and ends with successful implementation. Organisations are typically good at some of the elements involved and weak at others. It’s about addressing the weak areas and capitalising on the strengths. However, what’s missing in much of the literature for me is the human dimension.

People create ideas. People do business. The best deployment of social media is where it enables people to do more of the things people do. The best virtual working tools are those that enable people to interact in the way humans interact most effectively. The best leaders are those that understand what it takes to engage people and what makes being a follower a good thing from a human perspective. People can achieve amazing things when they are allowed to be human and are supported in the best way humanly possible. If we want organisations to be more innovative we need to think it through from a personal perspective. What are the fears, concerns, issues, hopes, aspirations and desires that people have that inhibit or help them be more innovative? These are unique to each individual. How do we design organisations to address those fears and maximise the opportunities? Everything else is just noise.

Gary Hamel in his insightful critique of strategy innovation in his 1998 article in Sloan Management Review seemed to us to be hitting the nail on the head. Innovation, like strategy, is an emergent phenomenon. We need to create the preconditions that lead to innovation. We need to appreciate the ingredients so ably demonstrated by Hansen and Birkinshaw and be human in our approach to helping people deliver each of the elements in the innovation value chain.

Appreciation and respect

As Voltaire said, “Appreciation is a wonderful thing: It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.” When it comes to innovation, above all else we should respect it’s a profoundly human activity.