Innovation isn’t an act of brilliance by a lone business genius; it’s crisp execution of a well-reasoned strategy. The popular mythology of genius founders like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk promoted on social media sites like LinkedIn and in business journals like Forbes are little more than noisy data points that fuel our cognitive biases, specifically our “availability bias.” This well-documented bias is a mental shortcut we use when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision, and it lets us down when we think about innovation.
We tend to heavily weight our judgements toward recent information and form new opinions based on the latest news we receive. So how does the presence of that bias play out in reality? We see stories about great business ideas tied to one charismatic business leader and learn that’s how innovation works. Try an experiment: Google “innovation” and you will find hundreds of images of a lone stick figure with a light bulb turning on.
One would have to dig through pages upon pages of web results and academic journals to find boring examples of brilliant innovation flawlessly executed by teams grinding away using proven methodologies. That description may sound boring and lacking in innovation, but it’s how companies like IBM continually create innovative new products and services.
When Lou Gerstner took over as the CEO of IBM in the early 1990s, he intuitively understood the foundation of all innovation: understanding your customers’ problems. Very few innovation initiatives fail because of lack of technology, yet many of them fail because they understand the customer, but not the customer’s problems. One way Gerstner combatted this problem is by challenging his executives to visit a certain number of customers every week and send a write-up back to him. Sending your top executives out of the office and away from their normal business duties sends a clear message: We’ll work hard and do more than just read reports about our customers from the comfort of our own offices.
What Gerstner was onto is one of the key steps in Design Thinking, a popular innovation and design methodology. Championed by firms like IBM and IDEO, Design Thinking has evolved into several different variations, but the point isn’t the methodology. The point is that there is a methodology and that innovation is neither an accident nor a solo project.
Firms that are successful in innovating new products, services or methodologies have several things in common when they are transforming their businesses. One is a well-researched plan based in the problems your customers are trying to solve; second — and arguably more importantly — is flawless execution. Whether your customer is a CFO who needs a new financial reporting system, an apartment resident who needs to sign a lease, or a handyman who needs a new drill, understanding the problem they are trying to solve is of absolute importance. In the now-classic quote from Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill bit. They want a quarter-inch hole”; but Levitt doesn’t go far enough in the search for understanding. The real reason for the need for the hole may be to put together a back-yard deck so the customer can host friends and family for summer barbeques. That level of understanding is where an innovation initiative needs to focus to add value. In order to get to the right level of understanding, the process starts with a solid plan covering everything from research plans to how to implement and govern the projects you choose. This is the grinding part of innovation that isn’t sexy, but it’s how you get things done and transform your customers’ lives for the better.