As a Chief Strategy Officer, it’s my job to think differently than everybody else. It’s how I got this gig; I’ve always been good at looking at problems from fresh perspectives and different angles. For the early part of my career, I thought that way of thinking was flawed. But as I began to participate in meetings and decision-making more often, I discovered the reasons certain things are the way they are weren’t always good reasons. I started speaking up and asking strategic questions … and I haven’t stopped since.
Owning the internal innovation process is a logical outcome of this way of thinking. Innovation is, by definition , a new idea, device, or method. The ability to not only come up with but to foster and grow those new ideas is the reason I have a job. It is an incredibly in-demand skill set right now. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that “innovation” has become a catch-all buzzword, a magical cure-all for anything that ails a business. Want to start a company from scratch? Innovate an industry! Need to revive a sluggish product line? Innovate a product! Looking to add new streams of revenue? Innovate a service! As a result, coworkers ranging from my boss, the CEO, to the developers I chat with in the hallways say things like this:
“Innovate or we’re going to die.”
“We’re getting creamed by the competition. How can we innovate to fix that?”
“We need serious innovation. Tomorrow.”
“Can’t we just throw more cash into R&D?”
All of these statements are fundamentally flawed and, ironically, subtly dangerous to the practice of healthy innovation. Assuming you’re not Google, Tesla, or the like, armed with endless resources, you can’t simply innovate your way out of a sticky situation. It doesn’t work that way. For those of us with real-world budgets and timelines, innovation must be a realistic process, with realistic expectations and goals.
Statements like the ones above don’t say it explicitly but imply a big bang, “if you build it, they will come” approach to innovation. This concept is seductive. Everyone wants to be the next Uber or Netflix. There are so many industries, products, and services that feel broken, and we’ve all had those conversations over drinks with our friends about how we could do it better. “Build first, find demand later” is the innovation process the media has sold us, and, by extension, that our bosses expect.
Don’t fall for it.
Don’t scoff, either. Yes, assessing your market before you launch a company/product/service is business school 101, as well as common sense. But far too often, we get caught up in the hype of exciting ideas, executive pressure, and personal ambition. Stop. Breathe. Think carefully about how to pick your mini-moonshots, measure success, and adjust course if and when necessary.
Start by looking at adjacent markets. My company, ReadyTalk, plays in the communication and collaboration space. We believe strongly in big data and analytics, and that’s certainly a hot industry, but are we going to pivot dramatically and start writing algorithms? No. We’re going to take a close look at where communication and collaboration are going and how we can apply our strengths and experience in that direction in a fast, forward-looking way.
For us, realistic innovation means starting with our customers, not our engineering department. Our product team creates bare-bones prototypes in low-tech tools like PowerPoint and shops them around. We learn what resonates with our target market before engaging expensive development resources, which ensures that engineers only work on projects with real legs. The products that pass the PowerPoint test do go to development, but customers remain involved. We ask them not only if the technology fills a need, but whether we are communicating the value proposition in a meaningful way. Successful innovation requires both: the right offering and the right pitch.
When you’re lucky and smart enough to find both, pour fuel on the fire. The nature of that fuel will be different for different companies and products. Maybe it means applying more engineering resources or marketing dollars, or designating it as a core focus area for the expansion of a product line. Regardless, don’t hesitate. Kill it fast, or double down. Indecision is your biggest enemy.
Which brings us back to those four statements that any innovator hates to hear. Thoughtful innovation can help you stay relevant and outperform the competition, and it is critical to do it quickly and empower your resources. But instead of throwing around declarations of “innovate or die,” trust the process. Ask around. Find a gap. Gather feedback early and often. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good – or in this case, don’t let your moonshots get in the way of less sexy, but equally powerful, realistic innovation.
David Chao is Chief Strategy Officer at ReadyTalk . Follow him on Twitter: @CreatedByChaos .