Today more than ever, innovation is the key factor behind a company’s long-term commercial success. But what exactly does that mean, innovation? How does it work? What role do chance, creativity and a structured process of innovation play? What factors support creativity and lead to innovations? What goes on in someone’s head when that idea first sparks, and how long is the path from idea to innovation? We’ve made our way through a veritable jungle of innovative advice for you…
"I think there is a world market for about five computers" said Thomas J. Watson, chairman of IBM, in 1943. Three years later, Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of the film corporation Twentieth Century Fox, predicted: "Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night."
These are just two examples of numerous errors when it came to predicting the success of innovations. Whatever else one can draw from these assertions, one thing is perfectly clear: innovation is more than simply invention. Innovation has to do with implementation and marketability as well as application. Or to put it another way: so many excellent ideas never become examples of innovation.
When talk turns to innovation, we think first of product innovations. That’s no wonder, since these are the most tangible type and are often marketed specifically as innovative. Examples include a revolutionary piece of software, a vacuum cleaner that works in a completely new way or a thin film solar cell.
Aside from these, there are numerous other types of innovation, such as innovation in the way we use things. In this kind of innovation, existing technology is applied to other areas. One light-hearted example of this would be piano stairs: steps are turned into giant electric piano keys to motivate people to forego the lift for the stairs. Eureka!
Entire business concepts can also be innovative, of course. There are many examples of this type of innovation that have already conquered the market and our daily lives. One need only think of IKEA and its outsourcing of furniture assembly to the customer, which was a rather unique approach when the company was founded. Would our grandparents have ever thought it reasonable to pay money to take something home and then wield hammers and screws to put it together themselves?
Dell provided another example of an innovative business practice several years ago. In contrast to its formidable competitors Compaq or IBM, Dell consciously decided to do without classic distribution partners. What was a disadvantage at the start was transformed into a distinct advantage with the advent of the internet, since Dell could now reach its customers directly without having to go through any distributors. In addition, customers could now, for the very first time, put together their computers according to their own desires and needs. What a benefit!
Of course, when it comes to innovations, it’s not always about commercial developments or economic applications. Nowadays, social innovations are at least equally important and even game-changing. They (are supposed to) help address societal challenges, poverty, marginalisation, ageing societies, the waste of precious resources, balancing work and family, poor educational opportunities, the globalisation of financial, manufacturing and consumer markets, and climate change, for example. Sometimes this can even be rewarded with a Nobel Prize, which is what happened – as we all well know – when Muhammad Yunus received the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his concept of microcredit.
Or you could bring 1.2 billion people together on one virtual platform. Regardless of whether you love or hate Facebook, the development of the Internet and social media is without a doubt one of the most wide-ranging innovations of our time. And just think: in the beginning, only a handful of masterminds were involved.
The simple lesson to be drawn (if that’s what you’ve been waiting for): concepts and ways of doing things can justifiably be called innovations when they are adopted by the relevant social groups and give the members of those groups something that is sustainably useful.
It’s not the case that every new thing represents an innovation. Most of the time, these new things are just variations on already existing products or a case of regular, linear development. But innovations are by necessity new – that much is clear. But is that really true? The well-known management consultant and author Christian Hoffmeister believes that innovation results from a combination of things that are already familiar, adaptation to new circumstances and integration into existing structures. Most solutions to problems are already known to us – they’re just being used somewhere else. The MacBook’s magnetic power cord was adopted from Japanese rice cookers, for example.
So it’s just a matter of keeping our eyes open and we’ll end up finding innovation? That almost appears to be the case. The graphical user interface that is often considered to be an invention by Apple was already used by a computer that Xerox Parc brought on the market in 1981, for example, and the concept itself is even older than that! It often happens that an idea is first successfully marketed only long after it was actually invented or imagined, and usually by someone other than the inventor or developer. Idea, implementation, marketability and market penetration are discrete steps on the path to innovation.
There are a number of opinions about where innovation originates from. Is it just chance, a spontaneous idea or maybe a matter of asking the right question?
Everyone knows that chance played a role in the case of many inventions. While the engineer Percy Spencer was working with radar equipment, for example, he noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket became warm and it melted. We can thank that chance happening for the microwave oven.
Sometimes innovation springs from a spontaneous inspiration, an idea one wasn’t looking for, but stumbled upon and which resulted in the development of a true innovation. It’s difficult to pin down which factors are most decisive in these types of flashes of inspiration. Is it the contact with something previously unknown, an encounter or conversation, inspirational surroundings, a (meditative) open-mindedness towards welcoming the unfamiliar?
Innovation managers don’t discount these factors, but they don’t necessarily think they are the origins of innovation either. Most models of processes involving innovation begin with a strategic orientation or a thorough analysis of the problem instead. The process often starts with questions such as "Is the product not meeting the expected sales targets, and if not, why?" Or: "What additional customer demands could be met by our products?" Or "Why isn’t there a machine that can replace this manual stage of production?" Problems and unexploited opportunities must be identified and thoroughly analysed. So it’s a matter of asking the right questions from the start. Only then can ideas be compiled or generated.
Innovation doesn’t have one single source – and this means that we can’t discount interaction between a variety of approaches. As Louis Pasteur once said, "Chance favours the prepared mind." When someone has already engaged with a specific topic, then it’s far more likely that he or she will be inspired and led towards innovation by a chance happening or observation.
Let’s briefly go back to the physical place where ideas are generated: the brain. What happens in the brain when a person is being creative? Neuroscientist Lutz Jänke explains: "We tap into our reserve of memories, whereas the prefrontal cortex, the control centre of the frontal lobe, so to speak, stays calm and quiet. To put it simply, the prefrontal cortex allows for the stored information in the brain to be accessed and combined in new ways." At other times, this "control centre" is active in such a way that it prevents these types of new combinations of information.
There are, then, at least two prerequisites for creativity. First: You have to switch off concentrated thinking and instead allow the different parts of the brain to exchange information with each other and create new associations. In modern neuropsychology, this effect, which we most frequently connect with daydreaming, is called "random episodic silent thinking (REST)". And second: Information must already have been stored in your memory. That is, it helps to have already spent some time grappling with the problem. The idea that you don’t need to know anything in order to be creative is – from the perspective of neuroscience – just plain wrong.
Are there concrete ways to switch off, to set aside our normal linear thought processes and allow creativity free reign? Psychologist Harald Braem advises playing with the impossible: "That means, for example, thinking that 1 + 1 = 3, or of an imaginary trip around the world, about how a new car would dance if it were an animal, or giving oneself the task of drawing the empty spaces between objects instead of the objects themselves." Music, even colours can be beneficial: "Blue tones especially help us to get out of our own heads."
Other means of limiting the activity of the brain’s control centre are meditation, relaxation, and getting away from the normal constraints we place on our thought processes. It is a bit unnerving to hear Jäncke talk about how creativity can be helped along by constraining the prefrontal cortex by means of transcranial magnetic stimulation or direct current stimulation. But subjects are indeed decidedly more creative in situations where those techniques are used.
Cognition isn’t just all in the head – it happens through interaction with people and objects, too. Cognitive science researcher Markus Peschl explains: "In the meantime cognitive science has demonstrated that thinking isn’t something we just do in our own minds, rather thinking also occurs in the permanent exchange we have with our surroundings – we call this ‘extended cognition’." Snippets of conversation picked up in a café or on the train can inspire us, as can exhibitions in which we are confronted by something new to us. Semi-public spaces are of particular interest when it comes to innovation. That’s because it’s in these spaces that observations and experiences out of the ordinary tend to happen.
Innovation "requires interaction between communication, networking, agreement and time for quiet seclusion", explains Thomas Fundneider, founder and head of the innovation agency theLivingCore. Too much communication can be unproductive, he says. And just being well networked doesn’t necessarily make one innovative. What matters is the quality of communication and maintaining a balance between everything else and one’s own work.
Fundneider explains further: "Innovations need one thing above all else: enabling spaces. By that I mean spaces that create the possibility for innovative thinking to happen." Peschl concurs and adds: "To put it simply, you need an environment that significantly elevates the chances that something new will come out of it."
The conventional design of offices tends to be unable to meet this challenge. These designs are driven by the need to efficiently use floor area, which results in crowded spaces with narrow gaps and paths – this constriction carries over into the thought processes of the spaces’ occupants. Knowledge workers especially need open and generous spaces: "Cognitive freedom has to be supported by spatial freedom." There is, however, no magic formula or one-size-fits-all type of setting that will work for every company, Fundneider warns. Creative spaces have to conform to organisational forms and social structures – only then will they provoke ideas and support innovation.
The starting point has been identified, the tasks clearly identified and defined, the topic, as well as new technological trends and customer needs have all been thoroughly researched, and all of the necessary factors for promoting and supporting creativity are at hand, but the ideas still aren’t forthcoming? Maybe creative techniques can help. There’s a huge variety, from brainstorming – which has fallen into some disrepute – to the 6-3-5 method, from the headstand technique and Synectics to the Osborn checklist.
The Open Innovation principle can serve as an alternative to or accompany a process of innovation, especially the Outside-In process. This technique advocates gathering ideas and know-how from outside – from suppliers, customers, research institutions or other external partners. Crowdsourcing, which is enjoying increasing popularity, is one example of this type of process.
But once you’ve gathered or generated a great number of ideas, you’ll have to choose the best or most appropriate among them. Which most closely meet the goals that were set? Which prove themselves less useful or need to be put aside for the time being because they don’t meet the necessary requirements? These could be technological limitations, absent customer demand, negative effects on the company’s image or the "break-even point".
The ideas remaining after this cull require an assessment that is as well-founded as possible, in addition to feasibility studies, market analyses and function analyses. The goal is to collect as much information as possible to minimise the risk of those uncertainties that accompany the early stages of any innovation. Then all that’s left is deciding which idea(s) to pursue.
As part of a broader marketing concept, the applications and uses must be thoroughly tested and assessed before introduction on the market. Then comes the tentative final step of market monitoring, including customer satisfaction analysis. Documenting and analysing the process of innovation can prove especially useful to later projects. In this way, proven and future innovations are secure. That’s how it looks, at least.
So, what are and have been the most important and amazing innovations in the history of mankind? "Best of" lists pop up over and over again in a variety of media, incorporating a mix of perspectives from business, science and technology. They tend to begin with the invention of the wheel and end with modern cell research. The question of what innovations are yet to come is far more exciting, though. And there’s no reason this type of question shouldn’t be allowed! The items on the list are a matter of speculation, of course. But maybe they will indeed prove to be smarter search engines, error-tolerant synthetic biological circuits, a more sustainable use of agricultural land and embryo screening for serious illnesses, as the journal Nature predicted in a recent issue.
In any case, we should be conscious of identifying all of the bases of our creativity. As our experiences show us again and again, where there is no effort, there is little success. This way, we will help to push innovation along. And somewhere down the line, it’s sure to pay off. We hope!