Scroll Top

Everyone can learn how to innovate


In today’s world there are far too many people who feel that the creative spark is just that. Over the past few years I have worked with hundreds of individuals and teams who have all felt that even mild incremental secondary innovations are beyond their capabilities but I’ve found that the following six topic areas, if taken to heart and practised can help even the most sceptical protagonist ignite their creative flame.


Find the Need

Whether you are innovating for a single individual or an organisation you have to find and address a genuine, qualified Need that people care about solving. There are millions of needs so finding one often isn’t as hard as you think. The best innovators are those who are passionate, empathetic and take time to dig into and clearly understand the needs of all of the target stakeholders who are going to use and pay for their new product or service. While this can sometimes feel like trying to mix oil and water together if done successfully then your new innovation will be able to meet everyone’s requirements without distilling its original essence.

Once you have found a Need and developed a solution for it it’s likely that your next step will be to fund it (whether you use your partners credit card or try to secure a multimillion dollar investment from an Angel Investor) and that means that you will have to meet the needs of a new group of people – your potential investors. Their needs can be very different from those of your target market but if you want to get your solution prototyped and ready for market then you ignore them at your peril.

Sometimes I find that the teams I work with, particularly those employed by an organisation take the Ivory Tower approach to innovation. To put it another way they only consider the needs of the Executive stakeholders or Board members. If this is where you start and finish then it’s highly likely that you will rush out a low quality, overpriced, mass market solution that is cheap to develop but fails to meet any real consumer needs. These types of solutions are unlikely to set the world or your revenues alight and over the long term their lack of success will begin to damage your organisations confidence in innovation.

For example, I recently worked with one of the world’s leading sporting authorities and their CEO simply told me to “Innovate” their sport. When considering just what to innovate I could have just played to the Chairman’s needs which was to increase the governing bodies earnings, improve the sports appeal to boost recruitment and improve grass roots performance. Simple enough. However not satisfied with that and knowing that I could deliver more I took a 360 degree view and worked to understand how I could innovate something that mattered to everyone –the Executives, the Coaches, the players, the sponsors, the public and the press. Once I understood all of the needs I was able to spot common themes and ended up designing a mobile application and a white labelled Cloud hosted analytics solution that the governing body could resell for a low monthly subscription which improved every player’s performance, consistency and welfare. Why? The Executives wanted to promote the sports profile while increasing earnings so they could invest more in improving the sport but wanted to minimise the upfront capital investment. The Coaches wanted to be able to identify up and coming new talent, monitor the wellbeing of their players when they were at home, keep their A players fit and on the pitch for longer and improve their game strategy so they could win more matches and become the club of choice for top flight talent. The players wanted to improve their on the field performance and welfare. The sponsors wanted to support ethical, high performance, winning teams which reflected positively on their brand image and helped them increase sales. The public wanted their grass roots squads and National team to win everything all the time which in turn would boost the sports uptake and the press wanted good news stories and in depth game analysis.


Always ask Why

‘Why’ should be used much more than it is during the innovation consulting process. Without it you will create a something that at best is incrementally better than an existing solution and at worst a flop. If you’re trying to enter a crowded market then as recent Harvard surveys have shown being incrementally better just isn’t good enough. To beat out an incumbent your solution has to be ten times better and that’s tough to do.

Of course every innovation or ideation session begins with Why but if you only ask the question once or twice then you won’t get to the heart of the Need and if you aren’t getting to the heart of the Need then you won’t understand the real problem or why people care about solving it and ultimately when it comes to articulating your innovations unique attributes to your target audience and investors all you’ll be stuck with is an ambiguous value proposition. Using Why will not only help you create a better solution but it will also help you define your innovations USP.

Only after asking Why as many times as you need to until you reach the real crux of the problem should you start designing your solution.

For example, and I have to admit to using an amusing example from Mitch Dikoff here that I found the other day… Members from the US National Parks service who had been cleaning pigeon droppings off of the Jefferson Memorial recently paused and asked Why. Why was the Jefferson Memorial so much more of a target for birds than the other memorials? The answer was because there was an abundance of spiders. While they could have stopped there they didn’t and asked Why again. Why were there so many spiders? Because there were an abundance of midges. Again, Why? Because the midges were attracted to the spotlights which came on an hour before dusk and created a type mood lighting that the midges loved.

In the end the US NPS resolved the pigeon problem by getting the spot lights turned on at night. If they had only stopped after the first Why then their solution would have been to remove the spiders which would only have served as a temporary fix until they came back again but not only did they resolve the problem they also had a thorough, indefatigable answer for the Jefferson Memorial Facilities Manager when he asked “Why do you want me to turn the lights on later?” In essence, the answer they provided was their solutions USP.


Imagine Perfection

One of the more famous phrases out there at the moment is “Start with the end in mind” and used correctly it can be a very powerful tool. Early on during the innovation process try to visualise what Perfection would like for your customers, but more than that try to visualise all of the downstream impacts and benefits that your solution will have if it is implemented. If this was genuinely your problem what would perfection look like? Visualise and run through the solution scenarios in your head and let them play out to their conclusion, don’t be afraid to get deeply involved.

The best solutions to needs are those that fix the problem in its entirety not just superficially. In today’s world where designing a solution for one Need can inadvertently create a problem elsewhere a good innovator needs to be aware of the downstream implications and try to solve or reduce their impact.

For example, a couple of years ago IBM was asked by Marwell Zoo in the UK to help save the Grevys Zebra, an endangered species with under 2,500 individuals left in the wild and the solution, which relied heavily on the use of predictive analytics also included increasing the size of the Sweetwaters Game Reserve. While this is good for the species the team involved also had to solve the problem of displacing people who used to live on the game reserve who were in danger of losing their source of food and fuel. In this case perfection is a solution that resolves the original Need and the downstream impacts to the satisfaction of all the stakeholders.



During my travels around the world I have found that Borrowing is under rated, partly because many innovators become specialists within particular sectors or cultures. While there is nothing wrong with specialising it can limit your vision. Many industries and cultures have some of the same problems but they’ve often solved them in different ways, a process that biologists call Divergent Evolution. Sometimes those solutions are good and sometimes they’re poor but having a broad range of cross industry and cross culture experiences will sometimes allow you to identify the best solutions and port them across to answer another Need in another industry.

For example, a little while ago I was fortunate to work with one of the world’s largest car manufacturers and one of the world’s largest supermarket chains – two companies in very different industries. The supermarket chain needed to reduce its operating costs and its environmental impact and during our due diligence we concluded that their vehicle fleet presented us with the biggest opportunity to reduce both. Naturally we could have considered a conventional vehicle refresh but that would only have helped them achieve 23% of their goal, good but not enough. Having worked with the Directors from both organisations I knew that the car manufacturer was working on a series of new innovative Lithium Ion battery technologies and was looking for a national customer they could trial it with so they could refine it so I introduced them to each other. A year on on and the technology has been perfected and is now being produced commercially and the supermarket chain has met its commitments.


Clear the Deck

Many people’s ability to innovate is often blinkered because while they might have found a genuine Need the only solutions they can see are ones that already exist and they try to make those solutions incrementally better. While this Secondary Innovation isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and much of the Chinese economy is built on it, it often means that people are simply trying to evolve today’s poor solution and the result is all too frequently something that still doesn’t answer the customers Need.

Clearing the Deck is a technique that often has surprising consequences and it’s simple. Now that you have found a need start from a blank canvass. What if the current solution to the problem never existed, how would you solve it?

For example, if the kettle had never existed how would you boil water? When you clear you mind of everything that has gone before suddenly you find yourself coming up with new, sometimes extraordinary ways of doing things.


Break all the rules

In Clear the Decks, I showed you a way to approach a Need with a fresh mind and this section takes that one step further. When I talk about breaking the rules I mean breaking all the rules. What if once you had identified a Need you could create a solution that didn’t have to obey, for example, the laws of nature or physics? What solution would you design? Sometimes applying this style of dramatic outside the box thinking, where there are literally no laws to govern you can lead to dramatic new discoveries, some of which might be completely unrelated to your original your original query.

For example, recently the National Science Foundation tasked one of MIT’s innovation teams to design a new type of dense, high capacity storage media. Many organisations such as Hitachi and Seagate spend billions of dollars a year trying to improve the areal density of today’s silicon based hard drives so they can squeeze more capacity into a smaller drive. MIT, renowned for their approach to innovation Cleared the Decks and Broke all the Rules. As a result they invented, although you could also say discovered, a new state of Gravity and have developed a ‘Quantum State Liquid’ which will not only drive major advances in storage but also in communications and semiconductors.

Related Posts

Leave a comment


Awesome! You're now subscribed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This