In a jungle every animal needs to continuously evolve to survive. If the animal becomes lazy, lethargic, or stops evolving, then nature or a predator gets the better of him and one day that animal ceases to exist. There is only one golden rule in the jungle: evolve or devolve.
This golden rule of the jungle holds true in our corporate world of the 21st century as well. Evolution in the corporate world simply means innovation.
The term innovation is much used and abused in every enterprise scenario. Every company wants to innovate; no company wants to be left behind. A lot of innovative ideas float around in companies, yet very few companies are able to innovate successfully.
Almost every company either thinks that they are innovating, try to innovate, or becomes a repository of innovative ideas without going any further. Given these facts we are left with a few questions to ponder:
- If every organization is innovating, why do some organizations degenerate over a period of time?
- Why do some innovations fail even if they are genuinely great ideas?
- Do some organizations just create an illusion of innovation without really innovating?
- How do we assess if an organization is really innovating?
- How do we build a culture of innovation in an organization?
- What kind of innovation means success from an organization’s point of view?
- How do we create knots of these innovations in the organization’s culture, people’s behavior, and technological advancements?
Let’s begin by understanding how to define innovations. The key to that is to answer two questions: “What is Not an Innovation?” and “What is Knot-An-Innovation?”
Everyone is talking about the smartphone as the greatest innovation in Information Technology after the Internet. If we really think about it as an innovation, a mobile phone is simply a communication device that connects two or more people over a network that now has global coverage. The real power of the innovation is not just in connecting people; it is doing much more than that. A collage of images (see Figure 2) that I collected during my ethnographic studies for various projects around India illustrates what I mean.
In a remote part of India, I came across one of the harshest of life scenarios. There was scarce access to water, food, and sometimes, even air, due to thin air at high altitudes. Strangely, even in that place, one of my friends wanted to post an image on Instagram. We tried almost everywhere, but the mobile network was very weak. A local informed us that there were some phone booths that allowed both phone and Internet service, but after searching and asking other locals for information, we reached the edge of a cliff with no phone booth to be seen. Just then, however, our WhatsApp buzzed with life. It was then we realized how the locals had mapped out their topography high points with “Virtual Phone Booths” or areas where one can get a phone signal. This provides the inspiration to map out important resources in our cities as well.
Likewise, each one of the pictures in the collage illustrates how the mobile phone has become a powerful innovation, not only because it is a communication device, but because it became much more. This is what I define as Knot-An-Innovation. Mobile phones have become knotted into our cultures, subcultures, attitudes, behaviors, communities, and individuality. These knots or connections have made mobile phones an innovation that is difficult to do without.
Yet there are many examples of technologies that came and went, sometimes without even a whisper. Examples include devices like pagers in late 1990s (remember those?) and Blue Ray discs in 2007-08. Although these technologies and services were organizational innovations, they failed to create any knots or connections in our lives, and, therefore, became failures. I define such innovation as Not an Innovation.
Using the Tetrahedron
The tetrahedron is a good way to observe knots and connections for existing innovations. It allows us to visualize these knots for innovations that we want to create. For example, the focus on technology and how it affects innovation often obscures everything else. How can I view multiple knots of an innovation?
This is what innovation is all about—the base is the core innovation. Surrounding the base are knots and connections that we can use to make the pyramids more useful, effective, and memorable.
To get a better understanding of how this works:
- Print Figure 3, fold along the dotted lines, bring the Glued Under edges together, and glue them together to make the tetrahedrons.
- Write the Innovation that you are creating at the top
- On each “Knots” side write how that innovation has become knotted into your cultures, lives, and society.
- You can either hang it somewhere on your work space as an artifact or show it to others you interact with to collect their thoughts.
The Tetrahedron Model of Innovation
The tetrahedron model of innovation (see Figure 4) finds its roots in new emerging design philosophies. The model focuses on the fact that innovation is possible when there is interdependence between art, science, engineering, and esign streams. The significance or value is given to the connections between local communities with collaborating designers, artists, engineers, and scientists. These interconnections are referred to as “knots.” Knots lead to sustainable innovations that organizations desire to help them innovate in this new era of connectedness.
Assess your Readiness – The Ten Rules of Innovation
Just like a submarine sonar technician must look at dials to know how far below the surface the submarine is and where it is heading (without these dials it might be right under an enemy ship and directionless), we have developed our own dials to assess our innovation processes. These dials manifest themselves as the ten rules. Each one of these rules contains suggested checkpoints that you can perform within your organization to see where your innovation stands.
Rule 1: Innovation means collaborating
Some organizations take the first step toward innovation by creating an innovation group. This group or team is usually cut off from the rest of the organization and there is often very little interaction between this team and the rest of the organizational teams.
- How many interactions happened between your innovation team and other organizational teams in the last three months?
- What was the direction of the conversations in these interactions?
- How many of your key teams like marketing, sales, HR, operations, finance, and others are talking to the innovation team?
Rule 2: Innovation does not mean an easy win
Organizations set very low goals and objectives when it comes to innovation. Perhaps it is based on the fact that they are not sure what the innovation outcomes will be. Staying with easy wins is good; however, if you are in your comfort zone, it is likely that a competitor will soon beat you in your own game.
- What is the percentage of revenue impact that is set as the target for your innovation team with respect to the entire organizational revenue?
- How many key teams across the organization will be impacted by these innovations?
- Have you set impact parameters on each one of these teams? For example, is the recruitment team measuring the impacts on their hiring cycles, hiring effectiveness, and other similar key performance indicators (KPIs)?
Rule 3: Innovation does not mean quick results
Although it might seem a contradiction to the previous point, the idea is to meticulously plan for a journey rather than target only quick results.
- When have you planned to measure the impact of the innovations that your teams will be working on?
- Are all of your innovation KPIs achieving results? For example, are you only tracking the impacts of the innovations or have you set other success parameters as well, like creating journey maps, working on concepts, or proving them?
Rule 4: Innovation is not the trump card
The impacts made by innovations are so appealing that many organizations start thinking it is the only requirement; when they start doing this they lose sight of the bigger picture. Innovations are important, however you need to keep the current operations running successfully as well.
- Is innovation the only performance indicator for your senior management?
- Have you tied every team’s performance to the innovation KPIs?
Rule 5: Innovation is not the finish line
An organization has to set its path on a continuous journey to achieve true innovation. If organizations start on a definitive innovative path and continuously improve processes—learning along the way through small failures and successes—they are definitely creating stronger foundations.
- Have you planned for innovation throughout the year?
- Have you allocated resources to drive innovation throughout the financial year?
Rule 6: Innovation is not a process in itself
Many people misjudge innovation as a separate process. However, innovation is a journey that we can follow in many different ways. An organization defines their processes to instill innovation based on its organizational culture, industry group, and many other factors that it deems important.
- Have you adopted innovation processes from some other organization?
- Was there an adoption strategy in place?
Rule 7: Innovation does not mean only new revolutionary ideas
This is one of the biggest mistakes that organizations make. There are many ideas that float around in some of the most unlikely areas. For example, your blue collar worker on the shop floor or your disgruntled employee in a break room may share ideas with others. All too often most of these ideas are rejected because organizations tend to focus only on the BIG ideas. But great smaller ideas can advance an organization further faster than one that struggles for ages looking to create and implement that one big idea! Look for low-hanging fruit that can help you innovate based on smaller ideas.
- Is there a strategy in place to listen to ideas both big and small?
- Is your focus only on ideas that make a big impact?
- Is there any plan to take smaller ideas to the next level?
Rule 8: Innovation does not mean pleasing everyone
An important part of any innovation journey is to get it approved by stakeholders. However, innovation can also means a lot of organizational changes and all of the stakeholders might not always agree to all of the changes. In fact, sometimes innovation means a change in the power of stakeholders as well. Therefore, rather than trying to please everyone, it’s important to focus on gaining the approval of as many stakeholders as are required to move the innovation forward.
- Is every stakeholder’s approval required to implement an innovation?
- Is the innovation implementation team powerful enough to make organizational decisions on its own?
Rule 9: Innovation does not mean only users
Another mistaken perception about innovation is that it’s all about the end users, for instance, consumers and customers. Many times, however, innovation is internal facing so it can be focused on your employees.
- Is your entire innovation program focused on external customers?
- Have you consciously tried to innovate for internal users as well?
Rule 10: Innovation does not mean only increasing revenues and decreasing costs
Lastly, innovation should not be thought of as only the creation of new products and services. Don’t restrict it to only two parameters for an organization: revenue and cost. Revenue and cost will have an impact, but if they become the focal points of an innovation project you lose sight of success in the form of employee satisfaction, good customer experiences, fewer support calls, fewer complaints, lower employee attrition rates, positive brand value, higher positive social conversations, better online visibility, and others.
- How many of your innovation team’s focal areas go beyond simply reducing costs and increasing revenues?
What Do You Do Next?
Once you have ball rolling with the right ecosystem and team in place, your next challenge immediately appears. You have multi-disciplinary teams working with you and, as we observed through the ten rules, it is necessary to meet, discuss, and take every innovation forward as a collaborative effort. We can now put the tetrahedron model of innovation to use.
Run innovation workshops
You can run innovation workshops by forming groups of three or four people, printing these tetrahedrons, and briefly describing the innovation idea. Let each one of the groups think and write pointers like the following:
- Who are we designing this innovation for?
- Where will this innovation be used?
- What are the knots for this innovation?
Afterward, let each group explain their tetrahedron to the others. An alternative way to manage this workshop is to ask each group to fill in just one side of the tetrahedron before passing the partially filled tetrahedron to the next group and so on.The activity stops when groups have completed all of the tetrahedron sides. The groups then discuss each one of the tetrahedrons together (see Figure 5).
I have used the tetrahedron model of innovation and the template from the ten rules in various scenarios such as client meetings, inter-team meetings, and intra-team discussions. It is a quick and easy method to reach a consensus on which innovations we want to work on and how we should design and complete the project. It all begins by getting the right team and empowering them with the correct tools. The ten rules help to push this agenda and, eventually, to have such a team firmly in place.
Even with great teams, running innovation exercises across an organization is a complex task. Every new team and its members bring new knowledge along with a fresh perspective. How do we assimilate these new thoughts and perspectives? Having used many other models, I experienced that none of them could bring as much clarity. The other models are either heavily focused on business values or technical feasibility. In an era of evolving ecosystems where people value good design, we need a model that is much more complex while being easy to assimilate and articulate. The simple 3D models created using tetrahedron modeling workshops are great methods to do this.
The idea is to create a solid foundation of innovation in an organization by using the ten rules. Then use the tetrahedron models to create vision statements, innovation briefs, product ideas, meeting notes, and many more knots that engrain innovation in every aspect of the organizational culture. That way an organization starts on a journey to create products and services that are much more than just being usable and useful—they become an indispensable part of our everyday lives.