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VOL. 127 | NO. 237 | Wednesday, December 05, 2012


Michael Graber

The Innovation Process: What’s the Secret Sauce?

By Michael Graber & Jocelyn Atkinson

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Business banter talks a lot about “the process for innovation,” which is usually referenced in the singular and stated definitively, leaving most business leaders scratching their heads. It makes us think that there is one correct process, the secret sauce that top companies have and follow. There are actually thousands of innovation processes, none of which have been quantified or proven to be the most effective. There is no one size fits all.

There is also no secret sauce. Most companies attempt an ad hoc innovation approach without clearly defined roles and processes then suffer mixed results. Company leaders hear so much about this all-important but ever-elusive business imperative. They look for the fabled innovation handbook then become overwhelmed by the many innovation gurus, each with a unique system.

Innovation just means trying something new in your market to better meet your customers’ needs, thus driving growth for your company. It’s making a change rather than just doing the same thing better.

How do I do this in a sensible way that mitigates my risk, you ask? The key is to develop a process that works for your company and will stick. It’s just like a diet – if it is not a behavioral and physiological fit it will never work. Keep in mind that culture plays a big role here. If your company has an old-timer mentality that rejects any form of change, then your first step is to retool the culture. Don’t expect to transform your company’s culture into Google; there is no magic formula for this. You need to find your own way. Strive to become a smarter, more nimble and more opportunistic version of your former culture. Assume a proactive mindset, strive to lead the industry and stop reacting to it.

When your team is in the right frame of mind, figure out who is in charge and clearly define roles. One of the secrets to a good innovation process is making it iterative. Think about using the following tools at multiple points in the process:

• End user feedback: what are their pain points? Where is the demand?

• Market segment size and saturation level.

• Trend spotting and scenario planning.

• Ideation: expand your team’s thinking with interactive exercises to generate new ideas.

• Design thinking: visually represent and design solutions for market pain points. Use empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality to analyze and fit solutions to the context.

• Stage gates: go/no-go criteria at critical points in the process.

• Prototype and test ideas with actual users, get them to co-create the solutions with you.

Make this a discipline not a diversion. Put receptivity to change and discipline in your secret sauce. The market leaders cook with this. Turn up the heat and you can too.

Jocelyn Atkinson and Michael Graber run the Southern Growth Studio, a strategic growth firm based in Memphis. Visit www.southerngrowthstudio.com to learn more.

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