Innovating innovation: A formula for success
If you look at a group of people who are creative for a living, you might see a room full of people goofing off, playing with toys, or staring into space, looking like they’re doing nothing at all. Then, you’ll immediately think “wow, I need to get a job like that.”
As the Director of Marketing for the Creative Cloud Mobile division, I can promise that we really are working. That’s what I say to my boss every time he walks past a room full of people staring at the wall. It’s all part of the process. I can’t say that my boss entirely believes me.
In fact, he decided to challenge me. He asked me to create a process for creativity. He wanted me to find a way to make innovation repeatable and predictable. He wanted it all delivered on the back of a unicorn.
Ok, so the unicorn part was made up, but the futility I felt when faced with that task wasn’t. After all, part of creativity is the ability to be spontaneous. How was I supposed to encourage creativity when I was trying to make everyone follow a paint-by-numbers process? Was I really being asked to innovate innovation?
As I sat down to write my letter of resignation, a sudden and ironic burst of spontaneous creativity came to me. While innovation might not be a process, there is a formula to it that anyone can use:
Innovation = f(passion * velocity * creativity * some array of variables) ^ risk
This isn’t Beal’s Conjecture, so you can put away that calculator. If you want to make innovation repeatable, it’s not about specific actions you can take. It’s more of a matter of attitude. It’s what happens when the right product meets the right people at the right time. It’s understanding all of the moving parts that come into play to make that idea a reality.
Passion – Passion is a critical component for any innovation. If the team is not passionate about what they’re doing, they should be doing something else. Inventing is creating something new, but innovation changes the way we all look at a product. Inventing is creating that plastic thing at the end of a shoelace that makes it easier to tie your laces (that’s an aglet, in case you’re curious). Innovating is turning the simple telephone into an iPhone, which changed the way we looked at communication entirely. Both are achieved through some desire to fill a need, but only passion can lead to true innovation.
Velocity – In math, velocity is the rate of speed at which something happens. Velocity in innovation is what overcomes all of the obstacles that get in the way. Velocity is what enables teams to “fail fast”, learn and move on. And if you’re moving fast enough, you can share your ideas openly and benefit from customer feedback without being afraid of the competition stealing the idea and bringing a product to market sooner.
Creativity – Organizations need to foster a creative mindset among their people in order to keep that creativity spontaneous. It’s not enough to tell your people to “think outside of the box” and then send them back to their box shaped cubicle. Creativity is a byproduct of curiosity, imagination and knowledge. Every single person has the ability to be creative, but when their environment doesn’t foster creativity, they might as well be robots. Robots can do a lot of things. They can solve algorithms, they can build cars, they can even beat Ken Jennings at Jeopardy. What they can’t do is innovate. Even in an organization where people are expected to adhere to a specific process, there must be some amount of elasticity involved to inspire this creativity and improve on old ideas.
Variables – These variables might be within your control or outside of your control. Whether they’re changes in the market that might affect the need for your idea or internal company restrictions that might make it more difficult to bring an idea to life, all people who wish to change things need to accept the fact that there might be issues outside of their control that will change the end result. The important thing is to focus on what you can control and then identify what can’t be controlled without letting them become distractions.
Risk – Do you know the difference between a gambling addict and a professional gambler? Success. An addict will stick with a game even after they’ve lost everything to it. A pro knows nothing is certain, but if they don’t take the risk, they won’t reap the rewards.
All endeavors have some level of risk involved, and this risk can be especially high when you’re trying to innovate because you’re trying to change an established routine. People generally don’t like that and shareholders may like it even less, but for companies to innovate, they need to embrace risk and reward risk takers. If the culture is too risk averse, all the company can do is maintain the status quo—the antithesis of innovation!
In this formula, everything is raised to the power of risk because without risk, there is no innovation. Without risk, you’d be reading this article in hieroglyphics on a cave wall. “Takes risks and is willing to fail” probably isn’t something you should write on your résumé, but it is an important part of how the world changes.
While it’s true that innovation can’t be planned, it can be inspired when organizations foster the right attitude in their people from the top down. By encouraging people to be creative, organizations can ensure that true innovation is a repeatable process, though it might not always be a predictable one.