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Innovation incubator: Build it and keep it running

If your company is like the one I work for, your people are talking about the need for innovation. Mine has just announced a new program "that will bring a standardized approach to gathering and evaluating your ideas for generating new revenue and improving our business." An Innovation Team has just formed, with a new electronic mailbox and a contest offering cash prizes for the year's best ideas.

Why do we need innovation?

Three answers seem obvious. First, you need innovation because our rapidly changing technology demands it. You cannot afford to do "business as usual," because what was best in its class yesterday is today's routine and tomorrow's technological dinosaur. You have to innovate just to stay up.

Second, you need innovation because your customers expect it. They are looking to you to provide the fastest, most accurate, and most accessible products and services available in the world today. If you don't deliver, they will go to someone who will.

Third, you need innovation because it sells. In every highly competitive industry (and what industry isn't?)companies tend to look over each other's shoulders and try at least to match what the competition is offering. The result is what Peter Skarzynski and Peter Williamson have labeled "strategic convergence," a phenomenon in which each competitor within an industry moves its practices and procedures close and closer to those of its rivals. This leads to a vicious, downward spiral, aptly summarized by David Crosswhite:

Benchmarking the strategies of the "industry leaders" and then copying them, by definition, leads to convergent strategies. Convergent strategies lead to industry parity, which leads to commoditization of product and service offerings, and indeed, commoditization of value proposition. Commoditization leads to price competition. Price competition leads to declining margins, and a lack of (or a perceived lack of) an ability to invest, which leads to a belief that you don't have the "space" to innovate. If you don't resist the temptation of this thinking right from the start, you plunge into a strategy convergence death spiral.

Innovation has the potential to propel your company ahead of the pack and demonstrate that you are clearly the company your customers should choose and be loyal to.

Two kinds of innovation

Not all innovations are the same. Generally, they fall into two categories: incremental and quantum leap. Incremental innovations are relatively easy and quite common, like the slight improvements you notice in each new version of your favorite software. Quantum-leap innovations, however, move quickly from nothing to something dramatic and substantial, like the introduction of personal computers or WYSIWYG word processing. Your company should be pursuing both kinds of innovation.

What helps innovation happen?

Experts agree that certain kinds of thinking make innovation more likely to occur. Here are a few examples.

1. Breaking set - To develop innovative thinking, we must learn to examine our assumptions and imagine possibilities outside of them. This is what "thinking outside of the box" means. Brainstorming usually facilitates this process.

2. Multiple options - Part of the assumptions we must jettison is that we have only one or two options. Assuming that a whole range of possibilities exists helps to move us beyond the off-the-cuff, obvious ideas. The more choices we can generate, the more likely will be the possibility that one of them is an outstanding idea. Once more, brainstorming is an excellent tool to use. Also, aim at generating six or seven alternatives, not just one or two.

3. Lateral thinking - You have to train yourself to discover commonalities between two or more seemingly unrelated concepts, forcing linkages between them. One useful exercise is to examine an industry very different from yours and try to determine what they are doing successfully that you can imitate. For instance, UPS documented the time and circumstances of residential deliveries to explore ways to trim delivery times nationwide. Do you have processes that can be timed, analyzed, and then streamlined? External research helps to identify and validate the linkages you make.

4. Mental helicopter trips - Can you rise above the mundane tasks of your daily grind to gain an overview of the entire chain of events that make up the process you are trying to improve? The broader perspective will give needed context to each component task. Flowcharting helps you to start "hovering."

Three approaches to innovation

1. Start from the end - One approach to developing innovation is to start with the goal you have in mind. What would the ideal product look like, and how is that ideal different from what is already available? Then you work backwards, asking what changes would be necessary for that to happen, and how can we make those changes?

2. Find new uses for existing products or processes - Perhaps a product already exists and is only waiting for someone to repurpose it to meet a long-standing need. The adhesive in 3M's Post-It notepads had been around for decades, but it took researcher Art Fry to find a use for it that now generates over $300 million in annual sales for the company.

3. Problem-solving - Innovation often comes as a way of solving a critical problem. "Necessity is the mother of invention," and her babies sometimes come due at the most unexpected times. Every challenge carries an opportunity. Fry created Post-It notes because of his frustration that bookmarks kept falling out of his hymnal during church services. He recognized the lemons and made the lemonade!

Teaming for innovation

Most people find that innovation naturally occurs in a team environment. This is because of at least three factors.

1. Teams are efficient - All of your employees are busy most of the time. Teams permit making progress on an idea by time-sharing.

2. Teams are synergistic - Each of the members of the team brings his or her own expertise, experience, and frame of reference to bear on an issue, with the result that the team effort accomplishes more than the combined efforts of all of its members, working independently. Furthermore, they can bounce ideas off one another, sparking new, tangential concepts and inspiring alternate approaches.

3. Finally, teams are persuasive. Because the team's voice is louder and its conclusions likely to be more credible than an individual's, the team has a better chance of overcoming all of the barriers to change that exist within any organization.

If you identify a challenge that needs to be resolved, or have an idea that gets your blood moving, share it with a co-worker or two. Talk about it to your supervisor. A team can resolve the challenge or develop and implement the idea much better than you can as an individual worker.

Innovation must be client-centered

In the end, it all gets back to the external client. Remember that your mission is to meet or exceed the needs and expectations of your customer the first time and every time. To be effective as innovation, every idea must pass this acid test: does it improve the service or product you deliver to your customers? Satisfying them consistently, and often pleasantly surprising them, is what working at your company is all about. It is the goal, and the pay-off, of successful innovation.


Crosswhite, David. "Keep Innovation in Play." Electric Perspectives. (March/April 2003). Available online at:

Levering, Robert, and Milton Moskowitz. The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America. New York: Doubleday, 1993. The chapter on 3M is 296-301.

Skarzynski, Peter, and Peter Williamson, "Innovation as Revolution," Economic Bulletin (April 2000).

"Training Staff to Innovate." International Trade Forum. Issue 2 (2000): 28-29.

Uniker, William. "Applied Creativity." SAM Advanced Management Journal. (Summer 1988): 9-12

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Copyright 2005 Steve Singleton, All rights reserved

Steve Singleton is a communications coordinator and quality trainer for an international information management corporation. A former reporter and newspaper editor, his stories and editorials have covered a broad range of subjects, including business, politics, ethics, and community affairs.

Steve has also written and edited several books and numerous articles on subjects of interest to Bible students. He has taught Greek, Bible, and religious studies courses Bible college, university, and adult education programs. He has taught seminars and workshops in 11 states and the Caribbean.

Go to his for Bible study resources, no matter what your level of expertise. Explore "The Shallows," plumb "The Depths," or use the well-organized "Study Links" for original sources in English translation. Sign up for Steve's free "DeeperStudy Newsletter."

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