Paul Genberg is the interim chief executive officer at Studio X, an innovation studio that launches products for the future of exploration.
Most people still think of innovation as a messy, sticky-note-filled brainstorm with sudden strikes of genius. But in the vast majority of cases, a deliberate, thoughtful, collaborative and disciplined approach to innovation is what produces results.
As the interim CEO and Head of Product at Studio X, innovation is my business. It’s what my team and I do every day. We don’t leave our success to chance. Instead, we rely on proven strategies that help us flip the switch on genius ideas. This is what Thomas Edison meant when he said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99% perspiration.” When it comes to giving birth to new ideas, there’s a lot of process, methodology and hard work involved before the light bulb comes on.
If your firm is attempting to break through barriers and create industry-disrupting innovation, use these strategies to help your team generate better ideas with less friction and more valuable results.
1. Know your user. When you know who you’re innovating for, it’s easier to hone in on what their problems truly are and exactly what solutions they want, need and will actually use.
The best way to understand your users? Go out and talk to them. If you have the time and resources to conduct a large study of your customer base, that’s certainly an option. But if not, you may find this study from the Nielsen Norman Group comforting. This study found that when collecting information from users, you hit the point of diminishing returns after speaking with only five people. Take your answers from the first five, look for patterns and use them as a springboard for ideation.
2. Install guardrails. Give a room full of creative thinkers instructions to “think up a solution,” and they’re likely to freeze from the vast enormity of possible options. To get your team progressing in the right direction, install guardrails that narrow the funnel in which to brainstorm..
For example, right now, try to list all the green things you can think of in 30 seconds. Now, name all the green things in your kitchen in the same time frame. The kitchen version probably went faster, didn’t it? That’s because guardrails allow you to define the problem more concretely, which helps you dive into deeper solutions and find novel approaches that are more relevant.
Humans get overwhelmed by too much information. When you constrain the focus a bit, your team can go deeper. Take large ideas, like “How might we solve workplace stress and turnover among professionals?” and add constraints to divide them into smaller chunks, such as “How might we solve workplace stress and turnover among registered nurses?” Then drill down even further to “How might we solve workplace stress and turnover among registered nurses in Brooklyn, NY?”
It’s a common misbelief that creative thinking requires unadulterated freedom. It doesn’t. Guardrails create a more defined path that ultimately leads to higher-quality ideas.
3. Loosen up before a brainstorming session. Feeling psychologically safe is critical to generating the best and most creative ideas. Spend some time at the beginning of each brainstorming session loosening your team members up with fun trust-building exercises or sharing of personal stories. “Warming up” at the beginning of each session will help your team feel more psychologically safe and prime the pump for intensive, creative thought.
4. Use a repeatable process. When I hear friends who are working on new innovations say, “We want to create our own unique methodology,” I have an almost-visceral reaction. There are so many great innovation methodologies out there; it’s a waste of valuable creative energy to reinvent the wheel.
It’s a smarter use of time and resources to leverage a methodology that already exists. Start with an existing framework to give your innovation project structure, then iterate and evolve as you make progress. When you use the same methodology again and again, your team will develop a type of “mental muscle memory,” so creating even bigger and bolder ideas gets easier each time.
5. Fall in love with the problem, not the solution. When you fall in love with a problem, you’re energized and motivated to find the right solution. But when you fall in love with a solution, you could end up trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and waste a lot of time doing it.
When you find a solution that seems to solve your problem, validate it. Test your idea early and often with actual customers. Make sure it serves their needs, not your desire to be right. Use the Kano model to prioritize features that users must have, would like to have, and would be delighted to have. Modeling your innovation after what your customer wants is a great way to safeguard yourself against falling in love with your solution.
Innovation Isn’t A Lighting Bolt; It’s A Slow-Moving Storm
As exciting as it is to have the occasional “ah-ha” moment, innovations that stand up to validation and make waves in the marketplace usually come from careful study, planning and evolution. Take time to put these strategies in place, and you can improve your team’s innovation process so that your lightbulb moments come more consistently and produce better results.