Give Yourself an Innovation Award

Sounds like a bad idea, right?  And yes, it’s a terrible idea.  Yet this is what many people and companies seem hell-bent on doing.  Reading that may trigger a smug smirk, but here’s the kicker – if you have something called an “Innovation Lab” or “Innovation Process” then I’m talking about you.

You Can’t Plan Your Own Innovations

Who determines who is a great leader?  Who determines what is great art?  Who determines which moments are great events in history?

In all those cases, it’s a judgement made by the people in that respective domain, often the people most affected by it, and after the fact.  Something cannot be meaningfully judged as “innovative” in isolation at the moment it was produced – it has to be put into context, put to use, and generate a response.  That response is what ultimately judges it.

The word “innovation” carries great value in business, often for the wrong reason.  People see it as a characteristic that leads to success rather than what it really is – a judgement that can only be made after the fact.  Unfortunately, even the typical dictionary definition of innovation focuses on being “new” without putting any weight on being “useful”.

Nothing showcases fauxvation (just made up that word, I own it, let’s put it on t-shirts) better than the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES).  A toothbrush with a built-in WiFi hotspot – sure it’s new in that nobody’s made that before, but does anybody want it?  And without even a single customer trying their new products, such companies loudly tout their innovations at product launches.  It’s like calling your new movie an Oscar-winner at its premiere – just a tad gauche.

In business, it’s not up to you, it’s up to your customers and the rest of the market to determine what’s innovative and what isn’t.

Ever Heard of This Thing Called a “Customer”?

Find a problem that hasn’t been adequately solved already that matters to someone who will pay money for a solution.  Now go try to solve it.  And show your solution to those people and get their feedback.  You’ll probably need to repeat this several times, and the faster you can iterate the better.

Simple, right?  It really is.  That first sentence presents all the seeds for potential innovation: you are doing something new that actually matters to someone who will render meaningful judgement (e.g. tell you if it rocks or sucks eggs).  But simple as it may be, many people refuse to do this.  Why?  I have a few educated guesses…

Three Reasons You Won’t Fix This

#1.  I would’ve built a faster horse.

That’s from an oft-cited Henry Ford quote that people trot out to imply that listening to your customers leads to lousy short-sighted ideas.  And if that rings true to you, then frankly you’re a terrible listener.  You absolutely should talk to your customers, and not just listen to their words, but also observe their habits, see their environment, understand their thinking – but all of that sounds really boring if you lack basic empathy and curiosity.  Which leads to the next point…

#2.  Your ego says it’s everyone else’s fault

I studied engineering at MIT and worked for two decades in Silicon Valley and multiple global behemoth corporations.  I’ve met plenty of “idea people” who want to sit in a very comfortable space, thinking of products out of thin air, and then blaming sales, marketing, and of course, those stupid potential customers (your words not mine), for failing to grasp all the wonderful things their “innovative” product could do.  And no, being ahead of your time is not a good thing – timing is really, really important.  And this leads to my final reason…

#3.  You don’t want to leave your shiny Innovation Lab

You spent a lot money making a very special place that mimics the outward appearances of a lot innovative people and companies.  You even make it a point to bring potential customers, the press, and community partners to tour your shiny place to impress them.  Actually, you’re repeating the same mistake as generations of anxious teenagers – you’re trying really hard to look cool which is a sure-fire way of showing how uncool you really are.  But you’ll get compliments from other poseurs, for whatever that’s worth.

Fix Fauxvation with Customer-Centricity

Talk to your customers and observe with empathy.

That’s really it.  Boom.

Don’t have a product or customers yet?

  • Think of people you care about. Learn about their most important problems.
  • Or think of a problem you care about. Learn about the people most effected by it.

Don’t know what it means to observe with empathy?  Also not a problem.

I’ll toot my own horn a little and say that I’m a good listener.  Still, I found it extremely helpful to learn about tools and techniques like ethnographic interviewing (About Face provided my first taste).  They help by providing just enough structure to tease out insights from many individual interactions.

There – you have your marching orders.  And while you’re at it, throw away those Innovation participation trophies on your shelf.  Those are so uncool, man :)