Read the stories from founding entrepreneurs of highly successful disruptors and you start to get a sense of just how varied the ways new ideas are brought to life can be, but that’s not to say there are not common components that allow you to ‘successfully’ approach an innovation methodology to deliver real outcomes.

Innovation from the top down - think again.

As many CEOs will attest, innovation is driven from the top-down in an organisation. But be careful, this implies that strategy is formulated only at the top, as well as the major initiatives for achieving it, which would mean that everybody else in an organization is excluded from the ideation process (the core of coming up with ideas). Actually, a CEO is going to need help to truly innovate and that might come from within or without, so let’s consider what that means.

In our view, there are essentially two types of innovation:

1. An innovation process (Outside)
2. Innovation thinking and culture (Inside)

It is critically important that an organisation understands the difference between ‘process’ and ‘thinking’. Process is generally the specialty of the big four consulting firms (hence: Outside) and is denoted by a series of formulated, pre-planned steps to produce something new. Favoured by the large consulting companies, this path will generally involve consultants using such established ‘process terms’ as gates, brainstorming and business case.

Innovation thinking, on the other hand, is different and we believe delivers higher quality outputs when applied effectively.

Innovation thinking works on defining and instilling innovative thinking among staff (yep, you got it: Inside). Essential to injecting a culture on innovative thinking is realising that innovative thinking is not the realm of a select group of individuals, probably in the corner offices with the best views and the most expensive furniture. In fact, many of the world’s leading innovative cultures will manifest to the fact that creative thinking can and should come from every level within the organisation, as well as from external sources.

Because if you can harness all those things, you just might be able to turn the world upside down.

So let’s drill further into creating a truly innovative culture within your organisation. There are five common components that you need:

1: Inspiration

We have talked briefly about this before, in that you should encourage and promote empathy through your own staff, and all of your staff. But how do you develop empathy? There is a myriad of ways that you can develop this skill, the most important and simplest being to encourage everybody from the janitor to the CEO to go out into the world and actively seek experiences. This will spark creativity while also creating an understanding at the most basic level of the wider world, and of people; that what most matters is what your customer is feeling, what motivates them, what they desire and what they need and why.

But you shouldn’t stop there. Motivate your team to interact with experts in the field or immerse themselves in unfamiliar environments. The most value they can obtain, in our opinion, is to either observe customer behaviour from a distance or at least role-play customer scenarios. No matter what the technique, and there are many, the goal is to build an unassailable empathy with your market. Once you have achieved that, you’ll realise pretty quickly that from empathy with your customers comes inspiration and creativity.

2: Synthesis

Now you need to make sense of all the information you gathered while creating your ‘inspiration’. We call this synthesizing – where the innovators take all the data from the experiences, as above, and find connections through patterns, themes and discovered meaning. The various crosshairs of this data begin to form knowledge. Rich, relevant knowledge. The synthesis process can allow you to easily identify or discover the fertile ground. Often, to get to this point, there is a need to reframe your fundamental view of your world, which is not easy when you’re well established with trusted products and ways of doing things. But our advice is to ask a different question. For example, in a retail space, instead of asking: “How can we eliminate unnecessary products?” try reframing the question to be: “How can we provide products that are personalized to a customer?” This question opens up an entirely new set of possibilities, as against the previous question, which would have you spinning your wheels on how to tinker ordering methods.

3: Ideation & experimentation

Ideation is essentially the process of coming up with solutions to a problem in a quick and dirty fashion. In Australia, prototyping quickly and failing fast is a new concept and often a frightening one, not fully understood. But the process, when applied correctly, can be extremely powerful. It allows a business to iteratively evolve its ideas, advancing the ones that have merit and rapidly eliminating those that don’t. The key to this stage is to be quick and dirty. What you need to get your staff to understand is that no single person should become too invested in an idea. This sounds counter intuitive, however tightly held ideas work against good internal innovation culture and this is where outside ‘innovation processes’ are limited as they require a single owner of an idea to see it all the way through the process. Just that work forms enough of a strong attachment to immediately stifle any potentially new idea formation, limiting the idea to one person’s (generally the sponsor’s) view.

As we see it, the ideation and experimentation phase is the fun and heart-thumping time when chaos is welcomed, along with techniques that introduce chaos, new experiences, differing viewpoints as well as a wide variety of people from external places. The iterative nature of this stage allows for multi-threaded feedback and experiential loops that evolve the product and spark new ideas along the way. The fail-fast iterative nature is critical to this stage.

4: Failure

This is not usually a word that a CEO is comfortable having as part of their vocabulary, however it is a necessary way of thinking to unleash a successful creative culture. Australia has always struggled with the concept of failure, while other parts of the world – in particular Silicon Valley – almost consider it a rite of passage. When you have been involved in as many innovative successes as we have, the surprising but compelling mathematics of innovation starts to ring true; if you want more success, you have to be prepared to shrug off more failure.

If you are struggling with this concept, as we find most CEO’s do, then it’s worth spending a little time examining Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers: creative minds that in one way or another disrupted their markets and changed the world, yet their names and process for these inventions have become synonymous with failure. Edison, in particular, tried thousands of experiments before ultimately achieving success. He, like the Wright brothers, understood that the faster you can find weaknesses during an innovation cycle, the faster you can improve what needs fixing. Edison once said, ‘The real measure of success is the number of experiments I can fit into twenty-four hours’.

It’s important, as a CEO, that you don’t perpetuate the ‘Failure Paradox’ – the common belief that creative geniuses rarely fail. True-life creatives and those that have driven innovative process, like Edison and the Wright brothers, show this to be a myth. In reality, it is the complete opposite.

5: Implementation

The final component in innovation is actually implementing your chosen idea or solution. This is the moment where your core team gets to refine the idea or product, and prepares a roadmap to the market place. Strong organisations are able to effectively pass this stage to cross-functional teams for delivery. At this stage, you and your team should feel comfortable with what you have, but still be aware that we’re not there yet: implementations can sometimes involve several rounds. This can makes the product look like it is living in an eternal BETA state but we would urge you to embrace that as real-time learnings from the live environment implementation are invaluable, along with feedback loops to ensure further quick iterative development of the product continues.

Finally, and most importantly, as you apply these basic approaches, don’t forget that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to innovation. In approaching innovation through a ‘design thinking’ approach you are, in fact, practicing and participating in a Human Centred Design framework. This approach can only lead the company in new directions, through better visions and better futures.

It is important that you constantly remind yourself to think wider and deeper than an innovation process. If you rely entirely on a process set-up with gates and a specialised team, you have already made true innovation difficult. Think wider, think failure and only then will you have disruptive and new.

The last word belongs to Diego Rodriguez, one of the teachers at the d.school. As he so eloquently put it:

’Failure sucks, but instructs’.

Who is akqire? Akqire is an ideation firm, that works with companies that are on a mission - to create innovative products and services that change their competitive landscape. Peter is a founding principal of Akqire and currently looking at ways of changing the way we think about energy.

* with apologies to the Berenstain Bears.

Reference material:: Creativity Confidence, author David & Tom Kelly 2015