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10 Rules for Innovation

1. Focus on the Customer’s Job

Take a fresh look at what your immediate customer is doing.  You may be familiar with process mapping your own operations to determine cost savings.  But map out the processes of your immediate customer to determine new products and services you can provide.  Take time to understand the pain of your immediate customer including time, quality, cost and emotion.

2. Get to the End User

Too often people only look at their immediate customer.  Sometimes the distribution chain can be quite long, involving shippers, stocking distributors, retailers and sales people.  Make sure to understand what the end user customer wants.  Everyone in the chain has a different understanding of the customer.  It can be much like the whisper game played at parties where the original message quickly gets lost as it moves from person to person.

3. Propose Stretch Goals

Some have heard of BHAG (Big Hairy Aggressive Goals).  When using Six Sigma Strategies, management often challenges the team to improve something by 50% or more, knowing that achieving “only” 30% or 40% will still be a huge improvement.  If you ask for only a 5% or 10% improvement, you’ll likely achieve it, but it will be an evolutionary change, nothing dramatic.  If you want dramatic changes, if you want disruptive changes, you need to get people to “think outside the box.”  BHAG’s accomplish that by forcing people to think differently, not just simply improve, but radically change for improvement.

4. Balance Social/Technical Aspects

Most innovations today are the result of teams working together.  Even if the original idea is from an individual, it will likely be molded through interaction with others, especially existing and potential customers.  It’s important to have people focused on the tasks that are goal oriented.  It’s also important to have people that are more sensitive to the feelings and emotions of the customer.  Value of an innovation is often more related to the emotional side than to the factual side.

5. Understand Team Feelings

Dealing with others is key to business as well as innovation.  There are many tools to help you understand your own personal approach and those around you.  There is Meyer-Briggs (MBTI), DISC and Strength Finders to name three.  One of my favorites deals more with team dynamics called Forming–Storming–Norming–Performing.  Through many years of building and leading teams, I’ve used this model effectively.

6. Brainstorm to Create Ideas

Now that you understand more about social interactions, you can more effectively do brainstorming.  The first rule of brainstorming is to capture all ideas, no idea is bad, don’t negatively comment on an idea.  At this stage, you want quantity at the expense of quality.  That sounds counter intuitive, but there will be time to weed out ideas later.  At this step you want to encourage innovation and “out of the box” thinking, not shut it down.  Often, teams use the Affinity Process to begin categorizing ideas.

7. ASK and Listen to Others

ASK is an acronym for Always Seek Knowledge.  Now that you have some good ideas in hand, go out and talk with people.  Talk with customers; talk with manufacturing; talk with service; talk with investors.  Make sure to listen carefully, to actively listen.  Ask questions. Don’t try to defend your idea.  Pivot the idea as needed to capture what you learn and make your idea more disruptive and growth oriented than a sustaining innovation.

8. Build on the Best Ideas

You should still have several ideas for further investigation and development.  Get the team working together to improve each idea even more.  Sometimes the saying is, “Two heads are better than one.”  I like this quote about the amazing power of ants to achieve great things, “The might of one, the power of many.”  Using your team’s social skills, take each idea to its maximum.  Use the Tech-I-M Plan Predictor to look for any flaws in the idea and business model.

9. Evaluate against Customer Criteria

Now you are ready to rate the ideas, as a team.  Take what you learned in steps 1, 2 and 7 to list and weight the importance of the buyer criteria for your product or service.  Using the “power of many” get agreement on the value of each idea to each of the buyer criteria.  You can use a table, spreadsheet, fever chart or spider diagram to capture the information and get agreement.  Select the best of the best ideas you have created.  Use the Tech-I-M Plan Predictor as an additional criteria.

10. Manage the Transition

The importance of having your team fully committed to this innovative, revolutionary, disruptive, growth oriented idea will be obvious now.  It will take longer than you anticipate to get from idea to mass acceptance of your idea.  You’ll need to remind the team regularly of what you are accomplishing and why it’s important to the customer.  Remember to celebrate the small successes on the way to keep everyone motivated.

Adapted from Albrecht and Jeanne Enders.