With all the pressures most organizations face to compete and innovate these days, it's probably a surprise that most businesses are actually not very good at it. There's a plethora of blogs and books on the process of innovation that you may have read, not to mention classes you can now take--I've taught some of these classes. Yet, even with the advantages of having all that information out there today, people still find it hard to innovate well.

The technical definition of innovation is "doing something that hasn't been done before," or to "introduce something new." The truth is that while most organizations know that innovation is something to strive for, they aren't actually equipped for it. Many companies encourage their employees to be creative and call it "innovation." This is a good start, but the reality is that the amount of change we can anticipate as a society in the next ten years will be far beyond anything we have experienced over the past 20 years. That will require your business to truly innovate because the market will demand it.

There are two main reasons that most people can't innovate: 

Personal Comfort

Innovation requires risk-taking and experimentation that challenges the status-quo. Very few people want to "shake up" their world and are afraid to take the risks necessary to create something new. We find our surroundings comforting, our technology familiar, and the established pathway looks a lot more navigable than the unknown.

How many big risks have you taken in your life? Most people will answer that they have taken less than ten. To innovate, you must be willing to take big risks daily or weekly, not every few years. Even more important, you must systematically search for the best risks to take. The majority of adults I know try to mitigate risks, rather than exploit them, which prevents them from innovating.

Systemic Norms

If you're in charge of innovation, you must fight the company you work for. You must refute the norms, break patterns, gamble with throwing away existing technology or revenue streams and engage in creative destruction that may terrify most executives. When you need the approval or the budget to pursue innovation, your leaders must be willing to take a risk, change company policy, invest in unproven ideas, fail and then learn from it. How many executives do you know who are actually willing to do what it takes to innovate, rather than just pay lip service to the idea?                                                        

Even in most R&D labs, the people toiling away under the auspices of innovation are rarely focusing on something drastically new. Most are toying with making incremental improvements with old materials, technology, or processes because that's what they know and feel comfortable with. While there are some amazing innovation hubs at universities and research parks, the majority of innovation comes from the maverick-style thinking of skunkworks, tinkerers and dreamers who don't have the resources of large organizations (or even small organizations) behind them.

There's plenty of information on innovation available but books and seminars will never be enough to inspire true ingenuity. In order to transcend mere adequacy and make a mark of creative transcendence on the world, organizations need to stop walking backwards, following a trail that has already been blazed. The motto of the British Special Air Service is, "Who dares, wins." It is time for businesses to be bold, inspired, and look to the horizon. The next great innovation is out there. Will you have the guts to create it?

Published on: Oct 1, 2014