Can learning professionals train people to be innovative? The answer is yes.
Innovation has everything to do with something new. In competitive business situations, success often comes to the best innovators. It may seem strange, but we can learn about innovation - making something new - by studying innovations and innovative methods from the past.
There are two basic types of innovation. The first, type I, does happen, but rarely. Type I is "something new under the sun." And new things under the sun don't occur as often as we think they do. The first automobile and internal combustion engine were certainly new innovations, but even they built on the wheel, cart, and other existing technologies.
Things such as nuclear power, radio, phones, electricity in the home, and manned flight were certainly good examples of something that was pretty close to new under the sun. All of the great, really new innovations can often be traced back to a genius, a lucky accident, or both.
We know the names of many of the geniuses - Fermi, Wright, Edison, and Ford. However, this is not an endless list, and while lucky accidents are good, they are too chancy. Type II innovation presents a better way.
Type II innovation is much more common than type I. The second type of innovation can be reduced to
- making something that already exists larger
- making something that already exists smaller
- combining one thing that exists with something else that exists.
The simplicity of type II is profound. It can create dramatic breakthroughs and change the way we live. Most of what we see and consider to be great innovations were derived from the three methods of type II innovation listed.
For example, the mobile phone or PDA in your pocket was once a fair-sized wooden box on the wall. The phone has been made smaller from the original wall-model hard-wired to the outside world. The phone has also been "combined" with a radio, calculator, computer, TV, and music player.
That flat screen television evolved from a device that was once considered a piece of furniture and that took up more room than an easy chair. Over time, the TV's depth and height has been "made smaller" and the width has been "made larger." Add the appropriate technology, and you have your flat-screen display.
Another example is web-based learning. Is it innovation or just another means of delivering training? Web-based learning came about when transparencies were replaced by PowerPoint slides. PowerPoint improved with graphics and animation, which was added to the Internet, voice over IP, and video, thus delivering web-based learning.
This second type of innovation - bigger/smaller/combination - sounds simple when you look backwards. But the trick is doing it in the present, as an innovation for the future. However, it is still much easier than becoming a genius.
The good news is you can get better at type II innovation. As good as we are today, we can also get better with practice.
The next time you are in a serious brainstorming meeting and need an innovation for a new product, service, marketing strategy, or similar task, put up three new header columns, and attack them one at a time.
A header is the place where you will hang your ideas. The three headers are, of course, "make it bigger," "make it smaller," and "combine it with." The "it" is whatever product or service or whatever you are working on.
Have fun with it. Remember not to critique or scrub the ideas until after the generation of ideas is done. Most people are surprisingly good at type II innovation. Morph some of the wild ideas into something that is doable. Remember, "If you think you can or can't, you're right," said the great innovator Henry Ford.
Innovators are not born that way. If you have your heart set on being the next Thomas Edison, you are probably going a bit too far. But whatever your innovation quotient is now, you can make it better with practice and by using a methodology that causes innovation to happen.
For instance, how many times do we hear, "think outside the box"? That's all well and good, but what box? Few of us recognize that the box is in fact ourselves. Learning to temporarily let go, be foolish for a moment, and be comfortable with ambiguity is necessary for innovation.
Getting beyond our "boxed" selves is a skill that can be learned and improved with technique, practice, and courage. For example, imagining one's self as someone else and seeing everything through his or her eyes can be a great technique.
Arriving at this level of letting go will require a systematic methodology. Many methods have been used in developing simpler and better products. These design processes incorporate early involvement teams.
The teams are composed of a broad spectrum of employees, customers, and suppliers that work together through a systematic process of looking and thinking outside the box to solve problems. The results are significant, and new products can be discovered.
The process begins by first understanding that there are "hidden customers" who must be discovered, and then working together to find the best way to satisfy their needs. Today, the Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) is a systematic methodology to provide the means to attain new services and innovative designs. Joseph M. Juran, founder of Juran Institute, called this process the "design for world class quality."
The steps for designing new products and services that lead to innovation are as follows:
- Discover the customers and their needs.
- Gather and research information, and observe the behaviors of these customers.
- Generate and then design solutions to meet their needs.
- Design the solution and validate that the needs are met.
- Transfer the design to operations.
Along the way, these steps force people to "think outside the box." It forces them to gain new information in a structured and organized way, arriving sometimes at revolutionary means to create new services.
There are also innovations that are replaced or that evolve quickly. Foods based on fad diets and toys based on television shows come and go. Other innovations, such as the computer, stay for generations. Why do some innovative products and services splash onto the scene and evaporate while others last? The answer often lies in the reason for wanting to create them in the first place.
This concept of push innovations (for example, toys and foods) is a short-term exercise that continues to flood the market with new products. Some are good and last a long time; many are short lived. If you are trying to innovate to solve a customer or societal problem, the outcome of a purposeful design process often leads to products that benefit society for many years. Drug development is a good example. Aspirin has been around for more than 100 years. New drugs that reduce cholesterol will also be here for decades.
Why do some products last so long and others do not? This answer lies in the methods used to design or create the innovation. Innovation requires a systematic process and set of tools to create customer-focused, need-driven designs.
Designing world-class services and products requires gaining a clear understanding of the customer's needs, and translating those needs into services aimed at meeting them. The process goes on to design and optimize the features and then develop and execute the new designs. This process is sometimes referred to as the service development process, the design process, or the DFSS process.
DFSS at work
Random, innovative ideas, no matter how clever, will not deliver economic success unless they meet a customer need better than the current method or fulfill a previously unknown or unmet need. The talented design people we have working for our organizations give us excellent designs when we tell them who wants it and what it is that they want - the "they" being the customers who make up a market segment.
The problem with most failed new products and services is not poor design. The problem is that the product or service did not have customers waiting and ready for the things that were actually produced. The question is whether there is a way to reliably get around this problem of good design but no market. DFSS was developed to precisely fill this methodological void.
DFSS is a rich concept with a well-developed core methodology. The process entails a five-phase service or product development method, and the phases are
Define. In the define phase, top management has to look critically at the business. It would help to revisit the organization's strategic plan. (If you do not have an up-to-date strategic plan, you should get one.) Management provides the design team with specific guidance on the need for the new service or product; management should not, however, design the product. It is okay to provide a high-level concept, but leave the design to the designers.
Measure. The measure phase is all about discovering and exploring customers and their needs - especially any unmet needs. This is the heart of DFSS. How do you ask a target audience for what they want in a service or product that does not exist? You can't, at least not directly. It is best to focus on needs. Again, let the designers design the product; not the customer.
The team then transforms the customers' needs into something more technical. We will call these critical-to-quality characteristics (CTQs). In the CTQs, we transform the needs as articulated by the customer into words and phrases we can measure.
The CTQs become the targets for the designers. This step makes it possible to design a product or service that will interest a target group of customers. (Recall that this was the failing of most unsuccessful products or services.)
Analyze. In the analyze phase, the designers will try several concept designs with potential to meet the CTQs developed in the measure phase. The concepts are now traceable to one or more CTQs, which in turn are traceable to one or more customer needs. The team will develop and match functional requirements of the concept design to the CTQs.
The analyze phase is the exciting part for most designers, but the foundation was laid during the design and measure phases.
Design. The detail design follows. In the design phase, we take the winning concept design and fill in all of the details. When inevitable choices and trade-offs arise, we have a ready-made selection criteria: the CTQs. The CTQs are like having the customer beside us at every decision point. We will develop and match the functional requirements from analysis to the design requirements of the detail design.
Verify. When the team is satisfied with the details of the design, they are ready to verify meeting the business needs given to them by management in the define phase and the customers' needs provided during the measure phase. Complete planning for procurement, production, delivery, advertising, warranty, and other items are also completed during the verify phase.
Innovation can be enhanced. Most innovation will flourish if we develop our own and others' creative talents. Type II innovation is the key - encouraging us to think in terms of making something bigger, smaller, or combined with something else. DFSS then helps us to first identify customers, learn their needs, and deliver products or services that meet those needs. Innovation can't be commanded. But innovation can certainly be encouraged and managed to achieve an organization's goals.t+d