How to (inevitably) innovate

So how do you come up with innovations? This is a common question we get when we explain to customers and stakeholders what we do. Yes, as an innovation consulting firm it is our job to identify opportunities for innovation for our clients, and while there is certainly a methodology to it, it is hardly something reserved for "innovative people", if such a thing exists.

The -not so- secret sauce of innovation is really a two-ingredient combination: collaboration and cross-pollination. Allow me to elaborate on both.

 

 
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Innovation by collaboration

An almost obvious, yet often overlooked, fundamental tenet of innovation is collaboration, the fact that you will need more than one way of looking at a problem. And this normally comes in the shape of not only more brains, but a manageable amount of brains with different perspectives, expertise, insights and yes, even professional background, gender and age. While it is not impossible to come up with fresh ideas with a homogenous group of contributors, a mixed group -when put through a systematic way of collaborating, will almost always render better quantity and quality of ideas. The keyword there is that this is not only a collection of individuals capable of looking at a problem from different angles, but an even more important aspect is how to empower this group to coordinate their diverse perspectives into a workable solution pathway.

This is where techniques like design thinking and scenario-focused engineering help direct creative efforts towards a common goal. Failure to engage the team in a coherent innovation exercise could result in endless debates among participants while trying to convince one another that their perspective is the correct one.

Both aforementioned methodologies are two variants of the design principle known as "Human-Centered Design" or HCD. As the name stipulates this principle shifts the focus from the design object, service or experience to first center the analysis of the design on the humans who will be the recipients of such designs. This may not sound like a breakthrough approach, however up until very recently, the majority of companies engaged in the creation of new products and services paid more attention to the features of the products than the underlying human need that the product was supposed to solve.

This focus shift also meant that, in order to learn what the human was really needing/wanting, one had to iteratively test assumptions ever so more fine tuned so as to approach to the desirable effect on the user: delight. The end goal of "delight", or better put, "delighting the user" has been slowly gaining traction; to be clear, in order to delight the user the innovation must be of such high value that any other solution needs to pale in comparison, so to speak. Certainly a very high bar to attain, yet this is what breakthrough innovations normally achieve.

 

 
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Cross-pollination. Importance of cross-disciplinary curiosity

We are all familiar with 'what-if' scenarios: hypothetical simulations that allow us to explore possibilities; a brain hack if you will to see into the future given diverse constraints, conditions or situations. When coming up with innovations, however, one must be more purposeful when utilizing 'what-if' scenarios. As a matter of fact one needs to be systematic, almost scientific in this approach. This is when cross-pollination helps imbue the initial first ideas with input from alternative industries or disciplines. To make use of a contemporary example, imagine your initial set of new ideas out of a fresh brainstorming session with your team to be like a photo that you take with your phone. Now, if you were to apply Instagram filters to that photo, as you would if you wanted to show it to the world, you would be modifying and enhancing the look of the photo. Similarly, when the initial ideas go through several 'filters' the idea morphs into something new and original. Perhaps the first filter could be "mining applications" with the ideas originating from the retail industry; the second filter takes the resulting ideas of the first pass, and puts them through yet another exploratory exercise that could be from another industry, or another discipline, or another target demographic, or analyzed under the optics of a particular emerging technology. The variations for cross-pollination are endless.

This re-mixing of ideas, concepts, trends and situations is what makes these what-if scenarios so powerful. In our practice we've been able to propose solutions for acute social problems like urban poverty that were inspired by practices and concepts from seemingly unrelated disciplines like genomics and cryptocurrency. Similarly, we have applied the first principles approach with knowledge and best practices from the food and beverage industry to provide solution pathways for rock comminution in the mining industry.


We live in times where innovation has been essentially democratized and yet, it seems that organizations are still looking for the holy grail formula to manufacture innovation. The reality is that basic principles like the ones described above are industry agnostic and have endured the test of time. The secret of innovation is that there is no secret. If we embrace our curiosity and allow others to explore theirs, and as long as we direct these exploratory exercises towards identifying what are the delight factors that the user is seeking, one will inevitably step into the discovery of a breakthrough innovation.