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.

Exponential innovation is the subject of an intriguing paper from Deloitte’s “Center for the Edge,” a play on words that is oddly reminiscent of 30 Rock’s beyond funny GE Crotonville Six Sigma take off, “The Retreat to Move Forward.” In their paper, Deloitte sees that exponential improvement in digital technologies is rapidly moving across boundaries and “colliding” with entirely new categories of technology such as molecular biology and materials science. These building blocks interact to amplify each other in unexpected ways. For companies, this accumulation of technological advances can pose the threat of disruption, but also open the door to exponential innovation.

Can Cross-Boundary Collision Be Used to Drive Systemic Innovation?

I participated in the storied GE company-wide initiative called Work-Out, intended to harness the collective power of GE employees, create a free flow of ideas and drive innovative change. It became part of how we approached work every day, and included a series of town hall meetings conducted by GE management designed to empower employees and encourage interdisciplinary and interdepartmental cross-pollination of ideas, and ultimately apply CAP, a change management approach as follow up to accelerate change. At the time, we lacked much of the technology available today to support these efforts. Much was done "in-person" and captured in documents and emails for follow up, because virtual collaboration and social tools were not available.

The technologies exist today to help businesses encourage and capture the results of collisions at the same time. This is a new age version of gathering around the office water-cooler, but far better given the virtual nature of so many companies these days.

Many companies are starting to use consumer technology like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to interact. But a recent social collaboration study notes that consumer-oriented social technologies lack document storage, the ability to share best practices across teams, sharing and group editing, the ability to search for experts inside a company and integration with enterprise communication systems. Fortunately there are enterprise-ready technologies that are beginning to surge in adoption that fulfill these requirements. These next generation enterprise platforms provide a space for interaction and communication and, in my perspective, innovation.

Innovation Inside the Box

Just how tired are you of being told to “think outside the box?” Here is an innovation technique that says you can succeed inside the box to drive innovation. Much of what you already know and do can be transformative when reimagined or reinvented.

Inside the box talks about five tools that form the basis of an innovation method called Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) that allows you to extract patterns and reapply them:

  • Subtraction helps you innovate by removing a seemingly essential element.
  • Unification reveals new opportunities by bringing together tasks within one component.
  • Multiplication lets you innovate by copying a component and modifying it in a way that may seem unnecessary or redundant.
  • Dependency opens up opportunities by correlating two previously unrelated attributes.
  • Division helps you innovate by dividing out a component and replacing it in an unlikely location.

The creation of Ice Cream Cones is my personal fun example, where a waffle doubled as a new way to serve ice cream. At the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, food was plentiful and historians say there were more than 50 ice cream venders and over a dozen waffle stands. With the heat, ice cream was the top seller -- hot waffles not so much. But the waffles proved useful when all the ice cream vendors ran out of cups. The rest is history.

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I have previously written about another example closer to my business roots that leverages process and content technology to drive innovation through knowledge brokering. In one example, a bank took the lesson of “dynamic queuing” from UK grocer Tesco and used workflow insight and analytics to create a process solution that used back-office staffers to substitute for tellers when the foot traffic in a branch exceeds certain thresholds.

In the spirit of “Inside the Box,” knowledge brokering aims to find -- not invent -- world-class answers to problems. McKinsey studies revealed that on average, knowledge brokering helped teams design new and improved processes twice as quickly as they would have expected to do by using other techniques.

Great Ideas, By Design

We never know where we might find great ideas. We seek them and, perhaps more often than not, we stumble upon them. Some may think that engineering for great ideas is not possible. I firmly believe there are ways to encourage ideation and a path to innovation; whether you use the techniques I’ve described in this article or have another approach. After all, that Big Bang episode doesn't tell us whether Sheldon’s attempts have ultimately succeeded, but the dialog does reveal a valuable lesson:

Sheldon: I came to tell you I’ve got the answer.
Leonard: Really? You figured out the graphene problem?
Sheldon: No, no, I’m still hopelessly stuck on that, but I figured out how to figure it out."

Images Courtesy of TomaB (Shutterstock) 

Editor's Note: Be sure to check out more from Deb's adaptive case management series: How Adaptive Case Management Can Help in the Battle for Same Day Delivery