Four Foundations of Natural and Nurtured Innovation

I hopped on an international flight recently with the intention of getting through the backlog of books that had been stacking up on my desk. I opened one. It was about innovation. And another. Also about innovation. And a third. Well, you get the point.

Innovation is such a hot topic. You might ask 10 people for a definition and get 10 different responses, but most agree it’s about revolution, upheaval, transformation, breakthrough, and relevance, and so it can be easy to talk about. But innovation also has plenty of potential for pain and failure associated with it, and it can be difficult to accomplish.

More and more, innovation has become tightly coupled technology. It seems, in this day and age, that everything innovative has a technology component. As I’ve been up to my eyeballs in technology my entire career, I began wondering a few things on that flight:

Are we born innovative? Is it something we learn? Or something we can fine tune and develop? Am I innovative? What does an innovative culture look like? And how can it stimulate true innovation versus a few great ideas?

Here’s what I came up with. Let me know what you think!

Are we born to innovate?

I’ve always tended to side with the nature camp in the nature versus nurture debate. Starting way back when I was in junior high, I believed that a sound 70 to 80 percent of our traits were nature given, based on nothing particularly black and white, just my opinion.

So, what about innovation? After reading article after article I found, not shockingly, there is no consensus on this issue either. In the nature camp, certain advocates believe that some of us are born to constantly question the status quo, to see things differently and have less fear of failure. In the nurture camp, the advocates believe you can create environments conducive to creativity and innovation and can teach people to innovate, sparking them to get out of their day-to-day mindset and admit to ideas that they might otherwise bury.

Both sides have merit. So, where did I end up? First, I’ll tell you a little bit about myself.

I don’t observe and wonder about things. And it’s difficult for me consider someone else’s perspective. However, my perspective doesn’t always line up with what others are thinking. Against advice, I pursued an online MBA when it wasn’t yet accepted. I was a single mom and it was the only way I could take care of my kid, work 70-plus hours per week, and get the degree. I make decisions with my gut 100 percent. I even refuse to play poker by the book and instead just do what I want to do because it’s more enjoyable – even when I lose. I have very high risk tolerance and the end result to me is not as important as the journey.

I have seeds of innovation and I might do an average job at being innovative in a non-innovative culture. But, put me in a culture that encourages innovation and surround me with people that bring fresh perspectives, and my personal innovation-quotient rises.

So, what should technology companies, lenders, and business owners do?

1. Hire people that twist naturally toward innovation.

2. Create an environment that gives your innovation-twisted people the best chance to succeed.
The less time you spend getting the unnatural to feel natural or the uncomfortable to feel comfortable, the more time you have for the fun stuff. Hire a base of people who crave brainstorming and implementing new ideas and give them permission and a firm foundation on which to shift the future.

What are some of the traits of innovation-twisted people?
• They tend to observe. They ask questions. And wonder why.
• They make decisions with their gut or data that doesn’t quite exist, not with ducks that line up perfectly in straight rows.
• They get jazzed by the process of creating, regardless of the end results.
• They often don’t necessarily care what the masses say and are usually NOT risk averse.

Creating the advantage

While certainly, start-up companies have certain innovation advantages – they can move quickly and see big results – mature businesses have advantages as well – namely, a bottom line with a healthy number of digits between the dollar sign and the decimal point. It’s in that in-between “junior high” state of being – not quite start-up and certainly not mature – where a company may struggle to maintain processes and deliver well on their core products while innovating, remaining relevant, and making an impact.

So, again, what should technology companies, lenders, and business owners do?

1. Make a plan. Include innovation in your budget and your roadmap. Recognize everyone in your company who creates and delivers an innovative solution, but dedicate at least one team, maybe two, to your emerging products. We did this recently at defi SOLUTIONS and I admit there were times I caught myself thinking we should move these valuable people back into our core. But if a company only supports its existing products and clients, what will happen to its future?

2. Experiment. While a project is expected to succeed, an experiment is given more latitude. Like a project, an experiment has specific goals with steps and results that are documented and tracked. However, sometimes at the end of the experiment the only thing you walk away with is learning. Dedicate X percent of your work week to experimentation and, as difficult as it will be, honor that time. If you have two teams, give them head-to-head challenges to see which experiments are the most fruitful.

3. Actively watch and listen. But to whom? I love our clients. But one thing I know (because I used to be the client) is that the client can’t always tell you what your next innovation should look like. Sometimes they don’t know until they know. So instead of asking – observe. Observe what they are doing and what you are doing to make things more complex for them. While your internal support team should have the best view of your client, sometimes they are too close to the processes of today to make the right decision for tomorrow. So actively watch and listen to your clients, your team members and industry network, and to what others – inside and out of your industry – are doing and are not doing.

4. Figure out your industry orthodoxies. And then challenge them. Every time you hear someone say something cannot be done and never will be done, consider whether that is your next opportunity to innovate and defy the status quo.
Whether you choose to do 1, 2, 3, 4 or all of the above, do something. Because not innovating is no longer an option.

Stephanie Alsbrooks is the Chief of Twisted Ideas at defisolutions.