Social Business, Three Ways to Drive Business Innovation, Every DayWhere do great ideas come from? The kind that drive innovation -- original ideas with purpose that can transform a person, a business or even an entire industry?

It often seems that there is a random creativity to innovation and a dependence on the unexpected, perhaps even the accidental. We cannot simply say, “go forth and innovate.” Or can we?

This month in my CMSWire series, I look at approaches that can increase focus on generating new ideas and technologies that can help drive a path to innovation in the workplace.

Ready, Set, Innovate

Merriam-Webster defines innovation as: “A new idea, device or method.” I prefer the Businessdictionary.com definition, “The process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value or for which customers will pay.” I think it’s important to include the notion of change -- the process of translating to customer value -- thus ensuring the idea can fulfill its purpose.

People share ideas with purpose in TED talks every day and remind us that of the strong cultural element to innovation. When I was with GE I did quite a bit of work around the cultural aspects of change, looking at practical techniques that engender new ideas, and their acceptance and adoption. To me, inspiration plays the critical role. First to create an environment that inspires people to great ideas, then to inspire those who must embrace and implement the idea and finally to attract those who will benefit from adopting the innovation.

My company engages in strategy exercises that help inspire big pictures of complex situations. They also encourage participants to make progress, even when they lack perfect information to rely on. This got me wondering, “What can we do every day to encourage new ideas, and what technologies can we leverage to pave the path for valuable innovation to follow?

Here are three approaches I think have merit:

  1. Innovation at the edges
  2. Innovation by collision
  3. Innovation inside the box

Innovation at the Edges

These days our senses are constantly bombarded and our days are over-scheduled, so much so that at times it seems creative thoughts have no room to flourish.

I recently took a holiday in the Adirondacks. I unplugged, sat beside a beautiful crystal clear lake and let my mind wander in search of clarity and inspiration. This we are told is what French artist Yves Klein had in mind with his “Monotone-Silence Symphony." The symphony requires 70 musicians and singers to take turns holding a single sound for 20 minutes, followed by another 20 minutes of DEAD SILENCE. By creating a moment of calm introspection, we have the chance to engage the part of our brain that lets us dream and imagine.

There is a hilarious Big Bang Theory episode, the Einstein Approximation, where Dr. Sheldon Cooper, theoretical physicist and genius (played by comic genius Jim Parsons) attempts to disable his higher brain functions and engage his superior colliculus. Sheldon is stuck on a problem and first tries to sneak up on a breakthrough by viewing his work at the edge as a “fleeting peripheral image.” He then tries pursuing “mind numbing work” in order to get his brain solving the problem without his conscious knowledge.

MIT’s Media Lab director, Joichi Ito, talks about using undirected research to discover answers to questions that we haven’t even asked yet. In his post "Innovation on the Edges in 1925 - 3M," Ito maintains that, “The ability to have strong peripheral vision and pattern recognition skills are essential to embracing serendipity and exploiting opportunities to pivot into new areas while leveraging existing skills.” Looking to the edges is how Dick Drew helped 3M develop a massive market in masking tape, and then expand it further with Scotch Tape. Sandpaper, their original “core” mission, was shunted to the side, a mere ancillary revenue stream.

All these “innovating on the edges” techniques I’ve described have a common core: to free and even at times misdirect our minds to look at things in a new or different way, and to allow creativity to emerge.

Many companies employ Google's “20 Percent Time” to allow employees to develop and pursue innovation outside of their core, separate from their day-to-day work. Is there a way to build this into our daily business? I think so and believe that adaptive case management (ACM) can be a technology-driven approach to encourage innovation at the edges every day as a by-product of how work is accomplished.

I've written previously about the notion that case management can assist knowledge worker innovation. ACM enables knowledge workers to interact with information and perform work in their own unique ways to best respond to changing circumstances. ACM can help innovators discover new directions, serving up an increased volume of building blocks from which innovative ideas spring. More importantly, ACM can help pave the way to implementing those new directions one experience at a time, and then ultimately across a business.

The premise for this, as Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hal B. Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen describe in The Innovator’s DNA, is that innovators aren’t just born, they can be made. Innovation skills can come through learning -- from first understanding the skill, then practicing it and ultimately gaining confidence in our capacity to create.

Practicing these five skills can help anyone become more innovative: associating, questioning, observing, experimenting and networking. These skills map to the enabling capabilities of the best case management solutions! For example, associating happens as the brain tries to synthesize and make sense of novel inputs -- or deal with all the artifacts of “business as it happens” as devotees of ACM might say.

Innovation by Collision

I just read a FORTUNE article by Saul Kaplan about a random collision theory of innovation. The approach says that the key to generating new business ideas lies in creating environments where "unusual suspects" can meet. It recommends seeking out innovators from across every imaginable silo and then listening, really listening, to their stories. New ideas, perspectives and the value-creating opportunities can be found in the gray areas between the unusual suspects. And yet we spend most of our time with the usual suspects in our respective silos. We need to get out of our silos more.