Tools for Unlocking Innovation

Tools for Unlocking InnovationThe posts that caught my attention this week all connect to ideas that we can use to unlock innovation in our organisations.

First up: How GE Plans to Act Like a Startup and Crowdsource Breakthrough Ideas by Liz Stinson. Stinson talks to GE Chief Marketing Officer Beth Comstock about open innovation efforts at the firm. One of the big motivations for pursuing open innovation is that even if you are massive, like GE, you can only employ a tiny fraction of the smart people in your field. Open innovation strategies help you reach some of the rest of them:

By tapping into the bright minds outside its walls, the company believes it can improve the innovation that goes on inside them. ‘You pretty quickly start to understand, you can’t do it all,’ says Beth Comstock, GE’s senior vice president and CMO, who is heading up the company’s open innovation push. And it does make sense.

Today, you don’t need every expert in-house, nor is it always smart to hire a sole contractor. Rather, it’s totally possible, and often more efficient, to crowdsource for that knowledge. Liguori puts it this way: ‘For all of the smart engineers at GE, we sure don’t have a lock on all of the smart engineers in the world.’

Comstock believes that by marrying the insight of people outside your company with the smart people inside it, you’ll get to a solution faster than you otherwise would have.

Of course, not all big firms are attacking innovation like GE is. Hutch Carpenter talks about how to get better at innovation, in Gmail Offers Surprising Innovation Lessons for the Fortune 500. He outlines some of the key ideas demonstrated by the development of Gmail – and it shows us how we can all get better at innovating.

Expanding your community like GE is doing is one great way to improve your innovation capability. Another is to experiment more. Steve Denning talks about that in The Future Workplace is Now: How Etsy Makes 30 Innovations Per Day. Remember when new software releases happened annually? Well, those days are long gone. Etsy recently made the switch from scheduled updates to continuous deployment – and they now have an average of 30 upgrades per day to the site.

As you might expect, this requires some changes in behaviour. With that many changes happening, you can’t have all new ideas going through an approval bottleneck at the management level. Instead, engineers that find problems are authorized to fix them. How does Etsy keep them on track? Purpose.

The management has articulated a clear vision for the firm and the staff are committed to it: making Etsy a very cool online market. “At Etsy,” says Mike Brittain, the engineering director, “purpose is not really a problem.” Within the broad strategic framework, the staff are authorized to proceed with continuous improvement. Many of the changes are “dark” changes that users never see, but which improve the performance of the site. There is continuous testing, and if an improvement doesn’t work, it is removed.

Purpose plus experimenting is a powerful innovation combination.

Hugh MacLeod touches on this issue too when he says Innovation Begins Here:

Innovation Begins Here

It is, again, a story of purpose.

This is also the them in my favourite post of the week by Elle Luna – The Crossroads Between Should and Must. She talks about things that we “should” do as the things we do to please others, while those we “must” do are the things that we are driven towards. The problem with the “musts” is that the stakes are higher, and this is scary.

What if who we are and what we do become one and the same? What if our work is so thoroughly autobiographical that we can’t parse the product from the person? What if our jobs are our careers and our callings?

Choosing Must sounds fantastic, right? To step into the fullness of our gifts and offer them up to the world in the form of our work.

Well, it turns out that choosing Must is scary, hard, and a lot like jumping off a terrifyingly high cliff where you can’t see anything down below.

Luna then goes on to talk about how she made that choice. It’s a great post – you should go read it!

Another tool that we can use is design thinking. Jeneanne Rae reports on the economic returns to design in Design Can Drive Exceptional Returns for Shareholders. She reports on the results shown by 15 design-led firms:

Starting with a list of over 75 publicly-traded U.S. firms, we found only 15 that met our six criteria: publicly traded in the U.S. for 10+ years; deployment of design as an integrated function across the entire enterprise; evidence that design investments and influence are increasing; clear reporting structure and operating model for design; experienced design executives at the helm directing design activities; and tangible senior leadership-level commitment for design. Corporations who made the index based on this criteria include Apple, Coca-Cola, Ford, Herman-Miller, IBM, Intuit, Newell-Rubbermaid, Procter & Gamble, Starbucks, Starwood, Steelcase, Target, Walt Disney, Whirlpool, and Nike.

As you might expect from the post’s title, these firms all perform very well.

Once you have an innovation, then you have to tell the story to get people to buy your idea. That is the issue that Valeria Maltoni addresses in her excellent interview with Nancy Duarte on the art of storytelling. They address some of the key themes from Duarte’s outstanding book Resonate. Here is one of the key points:

People can have amazing ideas, but if they don’t communicate them well, the idea won’t become reality. We’ve seen traction for people both internally and externally.

On the internal side, strong communicators tend to work their way up the ranks quicker. People that communicate a vision of what to do and how to get there stand out in organizations where people want purpose to their work.

We’ve also seen organizations get traction and attention as they use their best communicators as ambassadors. There is a lot of power in the spoken word.

I highly recommend both the interview and the book.

Of course, innovation depends very much on people. Jeff Atwood addresses this in Here’s Why You’re Not Hiring the Best and the Brightest. Great people drive great innovation, and lots of firms talk about how they only hire the best. Atwood points out that in practice, this usually means “the best people that happen to live where we’re located.” Here’s the problem – there are a whole lot of highly talented people that don’t fit that definition.

GE is trying to get around this through open innovation. Atwood outlines another approach: hire the best people globally, and let them work wherever they happen to be. Automattic and several other firms do this, as does Atwood’s – Discourse. The catch, of course, is that to do this, you have to change almost all of the other ways that you manage your firm. Atwood talks about the changes you get in hiring, measuring results, and building a community.

We don’t have an index of firms that are doing this yet, but so far, many of the ones that are organised in this way are getting pretty exceptional results.

Finally, Maciej Ceglowski posted the text of a talk that he gave in February at WebStock in Wellington called Our Comrade the Electron. A description won’t do it justice. He tackles several interesting topics including the innovation story behind the invention of the theremin, science in Soviet Russia, and, most importantly, the impact that technology has on the distribution of power. The stories are entertaining, and the discussion of power is critically important.  Check it out!

image credit: stimul8

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Tim KastelleTim Kastelle is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.

Tim Kastelle




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No Comments

  1. Marshall Barnes on May 6, 2014 at 5:46 pm


    How about when ideas unlock innovation within an individual to compete against an organization(s)?

    The opening paragraph caught my attention because of its reference to open source innovation. I’m a member of NineSigma’s open source community and recently had the opportunity to truly think *differently* as that Apple promo from some years back, suggested. What did I do? I turned down the request made to NineSigma, and passed on to me, to help the “multiple leading companies” in their bid to develop “new mood enhancing technology”. Instead, I used the description of the request as business intelligence and I’m going to compete against them instead. It so happens that I have 30 years experience and a number of technologies that I have developed that would be applicable to that request, already. The result is that the request signaled me that now is the time to get serious about it and beat these other firms to the punch.

    Many people talk about being disruptive, It’s like that Apple promo saying to “think different”. In this case, I get to do both, and with relish.

    If anyone is interested in more details –

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