From Idea to Innovation - Trade Only Today

From Idea to Innovation

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Ever had a great idea that went nowhere? History provides us many examples of great ideas that initially had very little impact.

More than 1,500 years ago, the Roman Empire moved its capital east to Constantinople. Europe was ushered into the Dark Ages, a time when most people on the continent were in survival mode. During this period of European stagnation, the Chinese began to use geared machinery, and the Middle East produced the first steam engines. However, it was not until much later, during the Industrial Revolution in the West, that the idea of geared machinery was “discovered.” The West failed to utilize steam engines for centuries.

Geared machinery and steam engines are just two of many ideas that needed the right environment to reach their full potential and create significant wealth. Both were amazing ideas, but neither was originally applied in a way that generated significant economic benefit.

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Innovation eventually brought Europe out of the Dark Ages by allowing farmers to produce a little more than their families needed, resulting in excess produce they could barter. This bartering created exchange markets called crossroads that eventually turned into cities. Ultimately, this wealth-creating innovation, combined with individualism, a by-product of the Protestant Reformation, led to the Renaissance, the scientific revolution, a lot of new wealth and the Western world as we know it today.

There is no question that innovation often creates value, but sometimes we get confused about exactly how innovation happens. We are often blinded by “resulting,” which occurs when hindsight bias causes us to think someone was an innovator when really, he was just lucky. The danger in this thinking is that we look at the person’s lucky process and give it credibility. The process may actually be of no value at all, or may even inhibit the innovation of others who try to duplicate it.

To be consistently innovative, we need to be intentional about it. Here are some ways to think about being intentional in the area of innovation.

Create the Right Mindset

Innovation is often considered a result of technology, but the most innovative organizations realize innovation is a mindset. This mindset recognizes that we should constantly be looking for new ways to do things better in all areas of our business. If we think innovation only applies to technology, then our thinking will significantly limit our organization.

Create the Right Environment

As leaders, we need to invest, allow failure and celebrate innovation. Those concepts seem obvious, but a surprising number of organizations actually discourage innovation by having a culture that rewards ­— extrinsically or intrinsically — those who keep things steady. Only a few would admit it, but many organizations have an “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” mentality. That type of thinking creates a culture that frowns on innovation. I know this is cliché, but we cannot get better results if we limit ourselves to doing things the same way we always have done them.

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Stop Swirling

At our company, it’s called “swirling” when we keep talking around an issue without acting on it. The talking may be about what we should do, how we should do it, or why it cannot be done, but in each case, the swirling includes a lot more talk than action. Successful innovators stop swirling, move toward a problem or opportunity, and act.

Beware the Innovator’s Dilemma

The innovator’s dilemma states that it is almost impossible for organizations to make changes that will disrupt their current business model. Think of companies such as Kodak, Blockbuster, Nokia, Blackberry and many more that failed to change because they thought the status quo would last forever. In reality, someone is going to disrupt your model, so it might as well be you. Maybe the best book ever written on innovation is The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen.

Make Sure You’re Fulfilling a Need

This may sound contrary to what I have written, but we need to be sure that what we think is innovation is actually fulfilling a need, even if it the need is not obvious to the market or potential customers. Sometimes this concept is phrased as, “What is the job to be done?” or “What is the problem we are trying to solve?” No matter how innovative you think it is, an idea can’t be monetized if people are not willing to pay for it.

Think Backward

Sometimes, people can think about what innovation would look like, but they have no idea how to make an idea real, or they are intimidated by what they must do to make it real. A good tool to help overcome this problem is backcasting. Backcasting is imagining that you have obtained a desired outcome, and then thinking back about how you would have gotten it done. Backcasting can change our perspective about a challenge and make it easier to create a path to a solution.

In the end, innovation can happen through luck or intention. Since we cannot count on being lucky, we need to be intentional about innovation. Plus, being intentional is a great way to improve our luck.

Bill Yeargin is the CEO of Correct Craft. 

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