I was at the Fortune Brainstorm conference a couple of week’s ago and we had an interesting debate on innovation and how we get innovative ideas. Some folks insisted that listening to customers was the key.

I am not so sure.

I tend to believe the opposite, that ideation which generates true innovation comes from individuals that instinctively think outside the box. While you need to have insight into the pain points, costs, and opportunities of customers, they (the consumer) are unlikely to define the innovation. In fact, they will look for you to solve their existing problems in ways that are best suited (and least disruptive) to them. While this is perfectly reasonable desire for a customer, it is unlikely that disruptive innovation will result.

Don’t get me wrong. For existing and new products, customer input and feedback is critical to maintaining a competitive edge.  The initial concept, however, I believe comes from the right ideation. An easy example is the iPod. People weren’t clamoring for one because, at the time, they didn’t understand what was possible. Once it appeared (and was a hit), then feedback become critical to refine and maintain the offering.

Innovation by nature must be disruptive. Typically, it requires us to do something different.  The question for larger companies then becomes – How do I get the ideas?

As I said, I don’t think you get them directly from customers (but you must understand their costs and pain points). I also don’t think that it is efficient to assume that everyone in the company can innovate. I am surprised at how many corporate programs fund and look to everyone in the organization equally for the next idea. While altruistic it seems to me that, just like every other role in the organization, certain people will have more ability to innovate.

To me, asking the whole company to innovate is about as logical as asking me to try sing on American Idol. First, I am self-aware enough to know that I can’t sing and fortunately, even if I did try, they have a way to weed out people like me before they even get on the show. Why then do companies invest like innovation is not a talent?

Yes, everyone can have a breakthrough idea but I believe, to get sustainable results, companies need to find and cultivate their innovators just like they would with other types of talent.  Just like there are people with great operational talents, there are people that are better at seeing the future.  Most companies have key processes to select and retain top sales, engineering, and operations talent yet they often look at ideation as simply something that everyone can do.  I think this is a failed model.

In the VC/startup world, the concept of the “serial entrepreneur” is well established.  Small teams that have successfully innovated are more likely to be able to do it again. Innovation is not a sure bet but is a clear fact that the right individuals and teams can significantly beat the average.

In large companies, when we find an innovative leader/CEO, I think it is likely that the trend of innovation as a company will continue. This is both due to the talent of the individual and also because the innovator/CEO can get around the other issues (like finding funding) more easily.

So my conclusion is that while companies (especially those in tech) should invest in innovation, focus is needed that includes investment in the right talent to get the best ideas.

More on the other key steps to innovation in future posts…






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