Innovation is a term that is very easy to talk about after it happens. When a person or company is being innovative it’s usually in reaction to something. Rarely does someone just say “today I’m going to file these three reports, meet with the accountant, innovate, and go for a run.”
Earlier this week I was reading the blogs on HBR.com and John Sviokla wrote an entry that caught my eye. His blog titled Getting Buy-In for Abstract Ideas talks about the Google team that came up with the bidding process for ads called the Vickrey method – the winning bidder pays the second highest bid plus one penny. His story is a little off since this idea first came about by Overture.com, a smaller predecessor web advertising company. And although that isn’t really the point of his entry, it spurred me to think about why, although successful at Overture.com, it wasn’t until Google that the idea turned into a tide wave of profit.
Another entry over to HBR.com helped push my thoughts in another direction. A blog by Daniel Isenberg called Entrepreneurs: Stop Innovating, Start Minnovating is about how entrepreneurs often get the feeling that success is being Bill Gates. Well, there is only one Bill Gates, but the feeling can be overwhelming and squelch many people from even trying. The example Isenberg uses is one where a movie plex in Mexico tweaked the normal offerings of a movie experience with some lime juice and chili sauce instead of butter on the popcorn. That is drastically over simplifying it, but the innovation was the timing and the execution of their product. Generally the idea has to be incubated in an environment that is ready to accept it. That was the case with the movie house.
This bring me back to Overture.com, often times smaller companies are the incubator for these untested ideas. Larger companies tend to be risk averse in their management ranks, especially middle managers. There isn’t enough upside to stake your career on a concept that may not have the time to pan out. At some point in a company’s maturity it changes into a process driven machine. This is good for efficiencies, but it encourages people to follow the steps. Creative thinking isn’t needed. However, there are always individuals at these firms with the right characteristics for abstract thinking and hopefully innovation. These characteristics are:
- Being comfortable with the unknown
- Viewing alternative ideas as a component of sustainability
- Using not just inductive and deductive reasoning, but also intuition
- Having an enlightened eye (being able to see deeper patterns)
If I were to advise someone in a large company as to how to implement an abstract idea, I would tell them to establish an environment that is ready for it. This means you have to get people to start thinking about the different elements of it well in advance. Otherwise the ideas will be so foreign that they won’t be able to make the connections. The idea will still be good, but someone else will take it and implement it – just ask Google.