Dave Conrad: Focus on whole solutions for innovation

Dear Dave: At my company, we are trying hard to innovate and be creative. I think this is all well and good, but we are producing a lot of innovations that are not doing anything useful. In fact, I think we have complicated things quite a bit. How can we use innovation to solve our problems and not make things more confusing? — T

Dear T: I know what you mean. Adding layers to things does not necessarily make them better. I am a Reductionist at heart and I say, "Simplify when you modify." However, when you try to improve things, try to create whole solutions -- don't just add Band-Aid measures but take care of the problems and opportunities fully.

There is not one business today that does not want to make more money, improve their processes, or completely take care of their customers. I think everyone has drunk the "innovation Kool-Aid. The problem is, there are far too few companies that approach innovation with a mindset of total quality and total solutions -- being only different does not always mean being better. Remember New Coke?

The innovation bandwagon is a good thing, and it means companies are trying to get better and - dare I say -- change and break from the status quo. But, we must revisit our foundational purpose -- taking care of our valued customers. Accordingly, innovation isn't an ideal outcome; it's a valuable byproduct of trying to solve vexing, wicked and nagging problems and seizing outstanding, profitable growth opportunities.

Companies hire smart people, put them in windowless meeting rooms and then tell them, "Be creative. Innovate." And then everyone scrambles around, proudly blurting out flashes of borderline genius, placing countless Post-It notes on walls with tidbits of thoughts and ideas, arriving at a point where a project leader says, "Let's make sense of all this and come up with something amazingly brilliant."


I'm not knocking the processes people use to come up with innovative ideas, I'm just less than enthused about the capability of many of the innovations we come up with to do what they are supposed to do -- solve problems precisely and completely. Also, there are many in these "innovation think tanks" that believe the innovations created are certainly too spooky to implement, so let's have a zillion more endless meetings to repeat the process of "pin the Post-It on the wall."

So, rather than trying to innovate in order to be different and "keep up with other, maybe less than admirable companies," we must focus our innovation efforts and outcomes on meeting customer needs, wants, demands, and expectations. We need to search out and discover what the ideal and best solutions are for customers. In short, we must let this ideal vision "pull though" everything we do. We must keep our "eye on the prize" to innovate.

Leaders must encourage all of their employees to discuss what customers love and also what they hate (pain points). Stories must be told about extremely pleased customers as well as stories about customers being disgruntled and telling everyone about their discontent. Of course, this assumes managers have set up feedback mechanisms and listening posts to gather customer insights and perceptions.

Great innovations happen when people are inspired by a fierce passion to solve user problems. If leaders want their teams to start producing truly innovative products and services, people need to get out of the office, hit the streets, and talk to their customers. Not only will they hear some amazing -- possibly humbling -- things, but, their customers will be delighted they took the time to listen to them.

The major takeaway: successful innovation is a mindset before it's a process or outcome. It's characterized by a dogged determination to see the world through your customers' eyes. That mindset drives all innovation decisions.

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