Creativity is not top priority for the emergence of an innovation culture
- Firstly, creativity is part of human nature, though often repressed and suppressed. In the right environment it will naturally re-emerge and bloom. No need for chemical boost!
- Secondly, and perhaps more counter-intuitively, creativity is only a small component of innovation, one that may not make the real difference: the creative enterprise is full of ideas, the innovative enterprise is full of cash.
So, if it is not creativity, what will make the difference? My top-three critical success factors are:
- Setting the strategic challenge
- Getting out and making connections
- Driving ideas through the stage-gate.
Setting the strategic challenge
People don’t innovate in a vacuum: they need a sense of direction, a purpose. Even when innovation is not explicitly on the agenda, leaders know that they have to inspire their people. But when you think of it, inspiration is precisely what is at the source of novelty, action, change, innovation.
Besides, however brilliant an idea may be, it is unlikely to manage all the steps and hurdles towards successful implementation if it is not in line with the values and strategic goals of the enterprise. And there are few things more lethal for an emerging innovation culture than encouraging people to come up with ideas that have hardly any chance of success in the enterprise.
Conversely, a well articulated strategic challenge will excite people and prompt them to contribute ideas that may not all score goals but will at least be shots on target.
Getting out and making connections
People don’t innovate in their office: they need fresh perspectives, cross-pollination. They need to see old ideas at work that they can adapt, transfer, build upon. The steamboat innovation happened through transferring the well-established static steam engine used in mines into a different environment.
Crucially, in an interdependent world, people don’t innovate in isolation. They have to make connections. Connections with prospective customers who may reveal – sometimes unwittingly – some unmet needs, connections with suppliers who may hold a piece of the puzzle, with designers who will help fit the pieces together. Procter & Gamble have staff visiting consumers to observe in-situ how their products are used and identify anomalies from which the next wave of innovation will emerge. And they have institutionalised the making of connections to the extent that their R&D has been re-branded C&D: Connect & Develop.
Getting out, sending scouts, visiting exhibitions, networking are not only functionally necessary for innovation to happen; they will also generate a new mindset of openness and curiosity that is a critical component of an innovation culture.
Driving ideas through the stage-gate
People don’t innovate in a flash: it takes hard work, long hours, determination and discipline. There are scores of obstacles along the way, there is competition for capital – whether financial or human, there are risks to manage and skeptics to convince.
Robert Cooper’s Stage-Gate process is an effective way for the risk-averse enterprise to get going with the implementation of new ideas in a structured way that will re-assure managers and help them understand and mitigate risks.
A well-publicised Stage-Gate is also a great tool to provide visibility to all people concerned. As they see ideas moving from one stage to the next, some all the way to the sea of commercial success, others being stopped at some gates, they will feel encouraged to submit new ones at the source. A good Stage-Gate process is not simply a tool for managers to control the flow of innovation; it is also a great communication tool to build the credibility of, and confidence in, an emerging innovation culture.