The Innovation Trap

Innovation is the buzzword of the times. Everyone wants it. Very few are finding it. And, there is considerable confusion about how to get it. 

I find it fascinating to watch some early stage startups. They often sit in really trendy creative looking incubation spaces heads-down staring at their MacBooks hoping to find that spark of insight for a new innovative product or service. I've noticed that some established companies have recently been hiring senior executives who are assigned the responsibility for innovation. Both the startups and the innovation officers of established companies do have meetings to come up with innovations and to visualized what's often called "the art of the possible" but both are falling into what I refer to as the innovation trap. 

The innovation trap is believing that you need to be innovative and that innovative ideas will just come to you. It doesn't work that way in my view. First of all, innovation is in the eye of the beholder. Only when the intended user of what you're producing considers it amazingly helpful, engaging, and indispensable will it be deemed innovative. So, instead of focusing on being innovative, focus on what problem you should solve or what opportunity to improve something you'd like to address. But how do you go about doing that? You close your MacBook, get out of the building, and start to observe, listen, and probe.

A term that is often used for this is user research. There's a lot to learn in order to do it really well, drawing insights and techniques from disciplines like ethnography, anthropology, and psychology. However, everyone can get started doing it. Simply focus on the domain you're interested in exploring, be it healthcare, travel, finance, and observe what people do today in particular parts of that domain. Learn what the current users are like, what do they do, say, think, and feel. Capture what you observe and probe with open-ended questions anything you don't yet know enough about. See the world from their point of view or in other words, empathize with them. Identify what pain points they current experience in doing what they do today and/or look for aspects of what they do today that could be improved whether they see it as a problem or not. Also get direct feedback from them on what they consider to be most problematic. However, don't rely solely on what they tell you, also make sure to observe their behavior yourself. People aren't terribly good at remembering events or introspecting about their reactions to them. It's often better to observe them instead. 

Once you have a good set of problems to solve and/or opportunities to address, you're finally able to start to explore solutions. Here again many people try to come up with that one killer solution. They often run with the first idea that comes to them. The first idea is rarely the best one. In order to come up with a great idea, you have to have many, many ideas and then choose among those. It's also important to provide an optimal environment for ideation, one that encourages diverse views, one that minimizes polarization, and one that is structured. Make sure to include a diverse set of people from different disciplines and life experiences. Prevent polarization of views by first having everyone capture their ideas privately, on Post-it Notes for example, so that the group isn't influenced by the ideas presented by the loudest, most influential, or most senior person in the room. And, you should structure the ideation session so that it starts by diverging, generating a lot of ideas from everyone, and then moves to converging by using a variety of methods to vote on the best ideas. Interestingly, if you do use Post-it Notes, the ideas written on them tend to become disconnected from the people who wrote them. As a result, there is less individual ego involvement when the group is evaluating the ideas and it fosters more effective teamwork. After that, you have to make a quick and cheap mockup or prototype of the solution and get feedback from a few real users on it. You keep iterating with feedback as you continue to make the solution higher fidelity and more real.  

We practice this approach to first understanding and then ideating solutions with our teams at IBM as well as in the work we do to help our clients. It is our approach to avoid falling into the innovation trap and is an essential part of what we call our IBM Design Thinking framework. You can read more about the framework and our use of it and other foundational design practices in a piece published in the New York Times as well as a Forrester Research report.