The words innovation and invention are often confused. Whilst a new product, process or service can be invented, this new invention is of little use if there are not customers wanting it.
An innovation is a desired improvement in a product, service, process, organisation, culture, business model, brand or channel. The improvement can be a small iterative step on something that already exists or something entirely new, significant and disruptive. The benefits can be to the originator of the innovation, their customer or any combination of people who interact with it.
It is very hard to create a simple “innovation process” made from a number of rigid steps easily illustrated in a flow-chart in the same way you can create processes for development teams, or finance teams, or shop-floor assembly line workers. Unlike most other activities within organisations, the output of successful innovation cannot be known at the outset. A strategy, or vision might be the starting point, but given these will be based on untested assumptions, as an innovation project progresses it might show the initial idea to be unfeasible, or it might highlight far more advantageous options to pursue.
It can be very hard for people trained in rigorous linear procedures to understand innovation and develop their abilities to innovate. Processes lay a path down that anyone can easily follow – it is possible to see where you need to get and how to get there. Innovation by comparison is like being dropped into a forest and asked to find a path to the prize.
The key to innovation is to be open to all incoming ideas, thoughts and inventions and be aware of all the key interrelations between the parts of a system (such as a business), to be able to form links between them, test them and iterate repeatedly until one or more promising innovative solutions come out. In a business context, where there are rarely unlimited budgets for innovation, a framework needs to be added in order to focus innovation into an efficient and productive direction. This prevents people getting stuck in the brainstorming mode and funnels the best ideas forwards to be tested, refined and eventually implemented or fed into the next corporate process to take it forward.
This Front-end Innovation Process is something that has been developed over more than a decade and can be applied with equal success to organisations large and small both to optimise existing innovation activity or to re-inject innovation into companies that have lost this skill over the years concentrating on growing a company from its initial innovative successes. For those familiar with the stage-gate development process, successful innovation should mainly occur before Gate 0 and then be re-applied constantly through the gates to ensure it stays on track as often there is a danger that the concept gets distorted by narrow, specialist processes down the line.