Do we really know what innovation is? Does it even matter?
Too often people get caught up in the exact definition and topology of innovation. When ideating around different topics and building prototypes quickly, I’ve encountered this myself when I was faced with questions like:
How is this an innovation? It’s not a new idea, is it?
How can it be an innovation when it is not completely new technology?
Aren’t you just reassembling existing technologies? How will you build moonshots like that?
Do the answers to these questions even matter? Are they even the right questions? Let’s look at three striking examples to sort this out:
Shooting people in capsules in vacuum tubes at up to 1200km/h from LA to San Francisco in 10 minutes. An innovation? You can literally hear the innovation community scream “YES!”. Well, here’s a surprise: it’s essentially not a new idea. Sending capsules in vacuum tubes at reduced to almost no friction has been around since 1850 when banks used pneumatic tubes to distribute letters. I’d still argue the Hyperloop is a terrific innovation, but for different reasons.
The coffee filter
Melitta Bentz was a brilliant woman, no doubt. And by inventing the coffee filter in 1908, she made all of our lives — especially those of coffee addicts like myself — much better (imagine you’d still be swallowing a good chunk of ground coffee every time you enjoy your morning java). But even this morning routine saving innovation was not completely new. Bentz identified the problem and looked for a solution — and looked no further than her kids’ blotting paper used to soak up ink when doing homework for school.
The Amazon Echo
The first virtual assistant for our homes. Over 3M units sold in year one. Quite the success and the start of an epic battle with Google Home and apparently even Apple. But is the Echo also an innovation? First of all, though it’s not officially confirmed by Amazon, all signs point in the direction that the Echo is the “leftover” of an augmented reality project aimed at projecting hologram-like displays into the physical world. Secondly, it’s a speaker merged with voice recognition software, both of which have been around for some time now.
So what’s the point? Getting caught up on terminology or the novelty of your technology or your idea doesn’t help. It doesn’t guarantee success. Jake Knapp from Google Ventures and author of the book “Sprint” illustrates this point vividly when he reflects on the example of Melitta Bentz:
“We all want a flash of divine inspiration that changes the world — and impresses our teammates. We want to create something completely new. But amazing ideas don’t happen like that. The lesson of Melitta Bentz is that great innovation is built on existing ideas, repurposed with vision. Coffee filters had been tried before, but they were made of cloth. And the blotting paper? It was just sitting there.”
This is great news for all of us aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs. The question that matters is: how do you get to be able to build on an existing idea and repurpose it with vision? This is what I refer to as “the art and science of innovation”.
The art and science of innovation
Innovation is every bit an art as it is a science because it takes those magical moments of creativity that you later can’t explain to your colleagues as well as bullet-proof methodologies and ideation processes. Let’s explore a few of the cornerstones of innovation — both artful and scientific.
I strongly believe that every person is able to have good ideas. It just takes the right tools. Think about hammering a nail into the wall to put up a newly framed picture — kind of hard to do with a sponge. There are a host of creativity methods you can choose from and don’t be surprised if you need a few tries until you find what works best for you and your team. Just a few days ago our entire team participated in a session called “rapid idea sketching”. Teams of two had to come up with three ideas, pick their favorite, create Pro-forma personas, write out the problem and solution, and sketch it — in total six steps that we went through in just 30 minutes! Out came 18 ideas, obviously not all Hyperloop-type quality, but a good hand full is definitely worth exploring further. We had a team of students that visited us ideate with Lego Serious Play on the topic of the office of the future — from completely energy-autonomous buildings to completely virtual environments, the ideas that came out were wild and great.
Another good piece of advice: be mindful of time, places, or events as all of these can have an effect on your creativity. One of my team members recently pointed out to me, that according to a study 72% of people get creative ideas in the shower. Now you know why a notepad out of water repellent paper for your shower exists. The catchy slogan? “No more great ideas down the drain!”
It’s the ability to intellectually and emotionally connect with the experience of another person and empathy is one of humanity’s defining characteristics and a great enabler of creativity and ideas. Why? Figuring out what people might respond to takes empathy. Seeking emotional resonance means you’re putting a potential user at the core of your effort — always. Psychologist John Wakefield suggests that empathy allows problem finding, which paves the way to creative problem-solving.
Astro Teller, the Captain of Moonshots at X, has beautifully laid out his reasoning for why psychological safety matters when you’re chasing audacious goals. It’s human nature to gravitate towards paths that feel psychologically safe. That’s why you have to make people feel safe especially when they make mistakes or fail altogether. You have to make it easy and reward taking risks especially if you want your people to run at the hardest problems at full speed. X, for example, does this by celebrating the teams that kill their projects because they see it as a success. Engineers are even paid bonuses when they announce the death of their own work. You avoid sinking more and more resources into ideas when there are unmissable signals and evidence that it simply isn’t gonna work. However, if you fail to provide psychological safety, your teams will never trust enough to proactively admit that they’ve failed.
Diversity in personalities
Dow Chemical studied the Myer’s Briggs personality types within their company and found that people with “NT” personality types, which stands for intuition and thinking, are more likely to innovate and turn those ideas into reality. For example, the speed and effectiveness of new business development were 900% higher than compared to their counterparts. That does not mean that, if you’re not an “NT” type, you can’t innovate or be creative.
Instead, it’s important to be aware and match team members with different strengths across an ideation process to maximize your team’s potential. Let’s go back to our “rapid idea sketching” session I mentioned earlier. We did exactly that: we analyzed our team members' personality types and did two rounds of ideation. In round 1, people of similar personality types were paired. In round 2, the opposite was the case — with surprising results. In round 2, the vast majority of teams were more creative and more efficient in coming to a solution. So opposites do really attract!
This has a lot to do with the broader culture you create and keep alive at your startup or company. At wattx, we talk a lot about our culture and values, as they are the foundation for our ideation. A few aspects that we find essential and ask of people are the following:
Check your ego at the door — it is not about YOUR or MY idea, but rather about coming up with the BEST idea.
Focus on content — you want to solve problems and advance solutions as this will take any politics or ego out of the game.
Build on ideas — instead of shooting them down, when you critique an idea always offer ways on how to improve it. You’re building on the original idea, otherwise, the critique is neglected.
Encourage big thinking — start by asking questions like “imagine a world in which…” or simple “what if…” statements free of any limitations or boundaries.
Last but not least, the more scientific — though not free of art — part of innovation. Great ideas are almost abundant and they are worth literally nothing if you fail to turn them into reality. A bullet-proof process that helps you track the progress of your ideas, enables you to reality-check your assumptions, and ensures that you’re always spending your resources on the topics with the most potential. You need this type of process to say no to topics and create white space, which is the space we need to remain creative and to innovate. Psychologists have referred to this as “cognitive surplus”.
At wattx, we divide our ideation process into five phases. After our Ideation phase, we promote the most promising ideas to the Discovery phase. This is where we dig deep and perform in-depth research on our potential users, the technologies currently available, as well as the market. We also talk to experts in the field. If our findings at least confirm the potential we thought the idea had, we promote it to the Prototyping phase. This is where we quickly build basic features and put them in front of users early and often. We take their feedback and iterate our prototype — many times. This is followed by the MVP phase, which means we proceed to build a basic functioning version of your solution in the same iterative manner. If all goes well, we let our solution free and implement it in the real world. At every stage, we look for specific criteria to evaluate whether or not we should proceed with our idea. Maybe not surprisingly, detailed business plans come very late in the process in the MVP stage. Why? Because as Steve Blank, arguably the inventor of the Lean Startup Method noted during last month’s Collision Conference in New Orleans, “the problem with business plans is that they never survive first customer contact.” But regardless of how rigorous your process and how specific your metrics and KPIs are, at the end of the day your gut feel will always factor into your decision. Just remember: killing an idea is just as important as promoting one.
For your own endeavour, what always holds true?
If you’re building a startup or a new product, there are two things you should always keep in mind and practice: empathy and Einstein. Empathy for the aforementioned reasons. As the design proverb goes, “we spend a lot of time designing the bridge, but not enough time thinking about the people who are crossing it.” Putting the user at the core of what you do will ensure that you provide a much better experience to your users, which will result in more business success.
Einstein’s famous quote encourages wild and crazy thinking: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Try to let go of what you know, because there is so much more that you don’t know. The latter is typically the source for inspiration — and together with the other pieces of the art and science of innovation, the key to your great idea.