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Aim Higher: Innovation...oil and water

Innovation stops stagnation...but is disruptive. Are you brave enough to create an environment for free thinking? Stuart Pickles explains the whys and hows

IS THERE ANY BUSINESS that does not need to innovate in order to survive and succeed? Some might think they don’t, but often they are the ones that need it more than most. Think Kodak…

But how do we innovate? It sounds like a great idea, but what does it mean?

There are many definitions of innovation, but the common theme is that it involves “creating ideas” and “implementing them”. It’s about bringing new ideas to life, making a difference to peoples’ lives – and, from a business perspective, having a tangible commercial impact. We’re not just talking about “ideas for ideas’ sake” – innovation is a serious business.

But ironically, the biggest barrier to innovation is when we take our business too seriously – our relentless analytical rigour, and our focus and drive for results – these things are part of the DNA of successful business, but they are not conducive for creating and nurturing new ideas.
Creating genuinely new and different ideas requires new and different thinking. As Einstein said, the same thinking will produce the same results. This involves access to our intuition as well as to our logical brain – isn’t it strange how we often have our best ideas when we are going for a run, walking the dog or having a shower? – this is when the logical brain is switched off , and finally our intuition can have some airtime.

To stimulate truly creative thinking, we need to switch off the rational part of our mind, temporarily, and just give is some playtime. Remember making clay or plasticine models when you were young? Messing about with paints and playing in the sandpit when you were young – you didn’t know what was going to happen, but it was fun and you created all sorts of things, one or two that might even have been quite good!

Allow free thinking in your business

Truly innovative companies like Google and Apple consciously go out of their way to create opportunities for this kind of free thinking – places and times when it is not only allowed, but encouraged. They use a lot of interesting techniques to “disrupt” normal thinking. And they attract and reward people who do this. They realise that it won’t happen on its own, and whille there may be loads of ideas that aren’t that good, eventually a real nugget will be discovered – because it’s a numbers game.

But even if you do create some new ideas, then the minute they are suggested, immediately you can hear the reaction echoing around the business – “that will never work!”. Well of course until its tested we don’t know if will work, but if we don’t give it a chance, then it is doomed from the start. Like a seedling in a greenhouse, it needs nurturing with some warmth. There is a need to switch off (again, only temporarily) the critical analytical thinking and give ideas the benefit of the doubt. This means actively prohibiting any thinking that is not curious and that does not build on the idea.

Great ideas that come to life are usually accumulations and combinations of many ideas from many different people that feed off each other and grow – they will easily wither and die if any negative thinking is allowed near them in the early stages – it’s like weed killer.

And then – “FINALLY” I hear your analytical finance brain crying out – when an idea has been allowed to grow, and when enough time and energy has been devoted to really bringing it to life and “making it real” (using techniques like tests, pilots, mock ups, prototypes etc) – then, and only then, the time is right to get the slide rule out and measure it up. It still might not make the cut, there will always be the reality check. But if your business allows, encourages and rewards the creating and nurturing of ideas, eventually an idea will make it through and who knows – it could be the breakthrough that you have been waiting for. It might take a while, this can involve a lot of patience – it requires belief that this is how true innovation works.

The final, and often most important, step is actually implementing the idea. This will involve a lot more creative thinking as well as a lot of logical/analytical thought processes and drive to get results. But it’s important to realise that at every stage through the process, creativity and analytical thinking are like oil and water – they are both essential for innovation, but for the best results, they need to be used at different times – they do not mix well.

Stuart Pickles is a former FD of Foster’s EMEA. He now runs and blogs regularly for Financial Director

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