Innovation: The Free Jazz of the Business World

Though the word “accident” is not one that usually inspires confidence in the business world, good accidents can often lead to something truly wonderful that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. For example, in 1942, scientist Harry Wesley Coover Jr accidentally invented super glue whilst trying to develop gun sights for the Second World War. And while I wouldn’t suggest trying to split the atom to see what happens to your sales numbers, it does no harm to try some of the more left-field ideas which could lead to something unexpected. Sometimes, a fresh perspective is just what’s needed.

Igniting Innovation

In her article from the Financial Times, Liz Bolshaw looks at the companies that are trying their hardest to innovate in order to get ahead in business. McDonald’s, Thames Water, and Royal Mail are examples of companies looking to do things differently, but, as Liz asks: are these initiatives and policies damping the spark they’re trying to ignite?

There are two key things to think about. First of all, you need to make sure you’re not just innovating for the sake of saying you’re innovating. It’s great to make a song and dance about an amazing project you’re working on, but you could end up with egg on your face if your great “innovation period” culminates in a not so necessary, only-for-the-sake-of-it upgrade to a product or service. The phrase, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” comes to mind. In Bolshaw’s words, do you really need to innovate your hamburgers?

An Army of Ideators

These things can’t be forced. It’s all good to hire someone to run an innovation “super group” that’s responsible for overseeing and developing the way the company innovates. But that’s not enough. You need to remember that the best ideas can come from anyone, anywhere, at any time — so it’s important to allow others outside of this group to provide input. There’s no point in putting all your eggs in one basket and expecting one department to come up with all of the ideas. You have an entire army of employees at your disposal. Use them!

Kim Chandler McDonald, author of Innovation: How Innovators Think, Act and Change our World, says that when you get a group of people together to innovate, it needs to be like “A good jam session. You want people who are very proficient in their instrument, but it’s when you get together and play that the true magic and innovation happens.” In my opinion, she’s bang-on the money. Innovation can’t be captured in a spreadsheet, or shunted from department to department. If it were a genre of music, innovation would be free jazz: everyone traveling in the same agreed direction, but bringing their own melodies to the table, ideas complementing each other, building together into a booming crescendo, and finally using input from the whole band to settle on that one great idea.

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