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Innovation: Against Ideas and in Favor of Learning

April 2020 Prof. Antonio Davila

Lately, a friend sent me a long voicemail emphasizing the need to be creative and have ideas in moments of crisis, to save cash and take advantage of the opportunities opening in the market. At least, he proposed arguing these ideas among a team. I put this voicemail in my long list of how to fail at innovation. This obsession about having ideas is one of the main reasons for organizations to fail at innovation.

How does a typical innovation process starts? It usually starts with a challenge. And, here is the first mistake! Who comes up with the challenge? Usually the boss who has decided that this particular issue that he or she is facing is priority number one in the organization. This approach has been the traditional way to manage organizations, a small team at the top has the crystal ball (or the vision) and the rest of the organization follows whatever this team decides is important. The problem with this approach in the 21st century is that the world is a lot more complex that what a few minds can comprehend. Plus, we have people amazingly trained with amazing knowledge. While top management will definitely identify relevant challenges, they do not have the exclusivity of knowing what is relevant.

Once the challenge is out there, the typical next step is uploading the challenge in an idea management platform or discuss it in a brainstorming session using creativity techniques. It is here where the entire initiative falls apart. Few innovation efforts survive this phase; the outcomes are so poor that only blind faith on creativity will get the organization to another of these initiatives. Why?

Asking for ideas reflects the belief that innovation is just a flash of creation that requires little effort. But creating and the innovation that comes from it is hard work. Hoping that posting a question and getting back great ideas is just too naïve. The ideas that usually come are trivial and simplistic; a reflection of the little effort that has come into it. If the challenge is reducing costs, the ideas that will come are: turn of the lights when leaving a room, reduce traveling, travel in low cost alternatives, and cut salaries across the board. Not very creative. The few creative ideas come from people that have a deep knowledge—because of they are interested in the topic, curious to learn, and talented.

How to get it right at innovation

Innovation is hard work. Its raw material is experiences and observations. The richer, the more diverse, and the more numerous they are, the more likely that your innovation efforts will succeed. Innovation does not start with a challenge that we throw out there for people’s creativity to solve it. It starts with having high-quality raw material.

People familiar with design thinking will recognize this argument. Before trying to find a solution to a challenge, you need to spend time with the user: observe, ask, experience. Without this raw material, design thinking is bound to fail.

To get innovation right, the first step is getting this high-quality raw material. It starts with a team of people. These people need to be talented, curious, and interested in the topic. Then you want diversity to bring complementary points of view of reality. A group of 5 to 15 people should do it, but having more in collecting raw material will always add to the quality of observations and experiences.

One of these teams should be constantly be collecting observations about changes in the forces shaping the market. This team replaces the “visionaries” at the top. Obviously, top management should get involved in deciding which challenges to focus on, but the strategic team identifies the set of challenges emerging in the environment.

Let’s move to a particular challenge and how to structure the innovation process. For instance, how to build an e-learning business. Once we have a talented, curious, diverse, and interested team, the next step is to build an amazing toolbox of high quality raw material. Each member of the team shares observations and experiences. These might be personal, a chat with a customer, a visit to another school, or they might come from other people’s experiences as reported on the web or databases. Observing and experiencing is a side product of day-to-day life; people just need to go about life with eyes open to interesting events and information. A more proactive effort involves scheduling interviews or visits but also spending a few minutes a day or every few days surfing the web or reading blogs on the topic. Interested and curious people will readily do this.

Sharing these observations and experiences means that everyone enriches their learning from the effort of the others. The purpose of collecting this high-quality raw material is to learn, to be surprised by what is going out in the world. Reading what other team members have found allows an individual to be part of the flow of events around the topic. Understanding a topic requires investing time. In our e-learning example, rather than jumping into having ideas based on individual and often poor experiences, the team spends time learning about what is already out there: climbing the knowledge ladder to sit on top of giants’ shoulders as Newton said. A well-designed group of people can, in a few weeks become experts in a field.

It is a mistake to skip this learning stage—observing and experiencing. Yet, a badly designed team will not put the effort. Innovating is hard work and the learning stage is the hardest—people need to be disciplined and devote attention to learn through observation and experiences.

Every few weeks, the team comes together to make sense of this raw material. It is the creation stage. To stimulate individual creativity, each team member reviews the raw material individually and “connects the dots.” These are insights—hard-worked ideas based on high quality material. The first step is individual to avoid groupthink or having a person dominate the discussion. Each team member reads the others’ insights ahead of the meeting and votes on them. At the meeting, the team discusses each insight. Ideas grow with debate. The outcome for each insight is an action plan. Some of them will be discarded or hibernated, while others will move into action.

The organization will implement those insights that move into action using any of the myriad of innovation techniques out there. But the team does not stop here. The environment nowadays is constantly changing and learning is constant; dropping the observing, experiencing, generating insights because we already have a few good insights is a mistake. The cycle has to keep on going to be on top of how the world is changing and to take advantage of emerging opportunities.

Innovating does not start with ideas to a challenge. Innovation is not about creativity sparked by a challenge that someone believes is important. Innovation is hard work, innovation is discovery. It requires learning ahead of creating. Learning is about discipline to observe and experiment, to appreciate what teammates have found. This is the raw material of innovation. This learning is the foundation for insights—high- quality ideas. Innovation, as learning, is inefficient; a lot of the observations will prove to be irrelevant, but they need to be there for the gems to emerge. Without the learning stage ahead of creation, innovation is bound to fail and for organizations to lose faith in its power.

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