Innovate From Where You Are

Every manager responsible for doing something different to get a better result must find a starting point. Much has been written about how to innovate, and good research informs us about phases, stages, and steps. Almost all of what is written comes from commercial innovation, but the basic lessons and best practices work in government, too. People and organizations are fundamentally the same with regard to mindset and change.

So where to start? Unless you’re bringing in outside support, innovate from where you are.

  • Start With The Customer

Much organizational change aims at relieving pain the organization is in. You want to get clear on what problem are you solving for the customer, from their point of view. Conversations about who are your customers, what they value, what you’re delivering to them, and how you can add value in their eyes get you the focus you need.

  • Engage People – And Step Aside

People in your organization are knowledgeable about what you need to know to innovate. They know the organization. They know internal customers. They know external customers. What they don’t know they can figure out, and no one is better positioned to pull it all together.

Expand perspectives by drawing on people from other parts of your organization – “sister” offices you work with, customer-facing offices, internal customers. Take yourself out of the team chain-of-command at least for early steps in the process. If people on the innovation team report to you, and if you and they are responsible for the daily work of the organization, you’ll stifle innovation with old roles, responsibilities, and communication behaviors.

  • Don’t Plan To Innovate. Plan To Learn.

Successful innovators learn. They learn about the customer, about how their organization interacts with the customer, and about how to add value to that interaction. Set out to learn, not innovate – and certainly not to diffuse a crisis or get a quick win.

Posit learning objectives as an explicit aims of your innovation effort. Ask questions and foster an environment of inquiry. Why do we do it that way? What would happen if we did it another way? Talk about what you don’t know. Don’t consider anything out of bounds in early stages because, as with good idea generation, the magic is in the conversations you create. Ideas will emerge if you foster great conversations.

  • Inform What You Do With What You Learn

Frequently return to the customer and drop anchor there. As you proceed, as you learn, revisit what you thought you knew about your customers, what they value, and what you’re delivering to them. Form and challenge hypotheses, and forever seek the truth. This means expecting biases to be revealed and first impressions to be wrong or incomplete. Use what you learn to iteratively form and reform innovative solutions to your customers’ problems – and check them with the customer if you can.

Innovate from where you are using these principles and you’ll get more from your organization that you expected.

For additional information, see The Other Side of Innovation Introduction: Solving the Execution Challenge. Govindarajan, Vijay; Trimble, Chris (2010-07-13). Harvard Business Review Press. Kindle Edition.

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Catherine Andrews

“Why do we do it that way?” is one of the top questions I wish more people would ask. Great post – thanks for sharing!

Lou Kerestesy

Thank you, Catherine. Many things organizations do made sense when created, and might still make sense many years later. They might need tweaked, however, or replaced. But we’ll never know if we don’t ask!

The key is the environment of inquiry. New hires, partner offices, customers – Millennials! – all wonder and will ask. Managers must make it safe to ask and answer, to think aloud and challenge, respectfully. Otherwise people learn VERY fast to not ask, which is perhaps what you alluded to.