Three principles for equipping individuals and teams for innovation

The design firm IDEO outlines three innovation ingredients: Inspiration, Ideation and Implementation. The triad acknowledges a certain fullness of focus, thought and action required to turn ideas into reality.

Innovation initiatives often flounder because organizations under appreciate the mix of skills, the variety of ways in which time must be spent and the tolerance for (seemingly) nonproductive work needed to find success. Based on this IDEO construct, below are three principles for fostering innovation and some resources for equipping individuals and teams for innovation.

Inspiration begins with observation. Innovation requires seeing opportunities to do something in a better way. Such inspiration doesn’t just magically pop into one’s head out of nowhere (whether showering or not); some observation usually triggers the inspiration.

Consider when Robert Stephens, the founder of Geek Squad, was on vacation, enjoying his early morning coffee on the balcony of his seaside hotel room. While watching the beach below, he saw a tractor pulling a roller to smooth out the sand. He also noticed the roller was leaving imprints of the Coppertone logo in the sand. The sight triggered the idea of embedding a reversed-out mold of the Geek Squad logo in the heels of the company-issued shoes worn by his computer technicians, so any steps on snow or dirt leave behind a marketing message.

Stephens practiced one of the six observational skills outlined in my book, “LOOK,” namely magnifying-glass-looking (spotting things of significance). The others: binoculars-looking (surveying/scanning), microscope-looking (scrutinizing details), bifocals (comparing and contrasting), rose-colored glasses-looking (looking past flaws to only see potential) and blindfold-looking (seeing what’s in the mind’s eye). Together, these metaphorical “looking glasses” help one find inspiration from daily observations.

Ideation requires more than brainstorming. Watch the series Edward de Bono did for BBC television, now posted on YouTube. Read de Bono’s book, Serious Creativity, for details about these ideation steps: (1) Focus: identifying what one wants ideas about, (2) Provocations: setting up mental stimuli, (3) Movement: moving (past old ideas) to newness, (4) Harvesting: capturing all forms of newness, since valuable thought is seldom first expressed as specific implementable ideas.

Implementation relies upon conversation. Business communications abound, one-way messaging in which someone wants something from someone else. Don’t confuse such with conversation, the more fluid use of words in which, according to Daniel Menaker, there exists “no direct immediate utility” for what is being said. Conversations occur for their own sake, as a pure investment in one’s relationship with another people.

Conversations build trust. Successful implementation of any innovation requires trust. Innovation efforts often fail due to a reliance upon new communications in the absence of prior conversations: There exists too little trust because there has been too little conversation — internally among coworkers, and externally with suppliers and customers.

Menaker’s book, “A Good Talk,” offers a delightful introduction into the ingredients (curiosity, impudence and humor), characteristics (aimlessness, playfulness, even mischievousness and uncensored-ness), and steps (survey-discovery-risk-roles) inherent to any good conversation. Another invaluable resource: David Brooks’ recent book, “How to Know a Person.” It overflows with useful advice.

James H. Gilmore is an Associate Professor at Case Western Reserve University Weatherhead School of Management

James H. Gilmore

Associate Professor
Connect On Social Media