Innovation Isn’t a Side-Project

14 time zones, 6 flights, 4 layovers, 2 trains, 3 hotels, and dozens of Wifi networks and one giant salt mine later, I’m back in the US. I’ve talked with lots of entrepreneurs and investors from the world over on this trip, and have come to a realization.

Companies like to say they innovate differently than their competition, and “Innovation Hubs” have sprouted the world over touting each company’s “unique approach”. I’m here to tell you the darling concept of startups and enterprise companies alike – innovation – is pretty much the same everywhere.

That might seem counter-intuitive, but it’s true. Webster defines innovation as “a new method, idea, product”. While that’s accurate, it’s not quite as accurate as many in the tech world would like you to believe. Many say innovation is the process of creating new and exciting ways to solve their customer’s problems. That definition sounds nice, but isn’t that the point of a startup anyway? Isn’t that what most companies should be doing? And if that’s what everyone is doing, what makes it so special?

Last week I promised you a report from Techsylvania, the tech conference in Romania where I gave a workshop on Human-Centered Product Design (great event, more on that in a bit). First, three vignettes from the trip:

  1. After the workshop in Romania a few people approached me and asked how the methods I had just talked about could be applied in a large company. They were leading the company’s “Innovation Hub” and were interested in how doing these exercises would make them more competitive.
     
  2. While on a layover in Amsterdam I met a French businessmen in the airport lounge who, after asking what I did, was curious how his company could “be more innovative, you know, like a startup”.
     
  3. When I got back to the US, I participated in a panel on Innovation in Atlanta hosted by product404 at CNN. A lot of the Q&A revolved around the process and exercises of innovation.

The similarities in these three conversations were striking. The focus seemed to be on the methods, processes, and activities of being innovative. And that’s missing the point entirely.

Innovation isn’t what you do. It’s how you think! It’s a mindset you have to get into, and stay in. A mindset that continually asks tough questions and searches for answers. Thinking that challenges the status-quo. Thinking that makes stakeholders uncomfortable.

One of the points that came up in Romania and at the product404 event was that companies often setup an “Innovation Center” as a way of exploring new ideas. All too often, while a wonderful gesture in the right direction, these Innovation Centers are just window dressing. It’s a way for a company to check the innovation box while not rocking the boat of the core business too much. 

The point of innovation is to rock the boat, to lead change, and create things that didn’t exist before.

Think of the most innovative companies of the last 10 years. Who comes to mind? Google? Tesla? Amazon? These companies don’t have innovation centers, they are innovation centers.

If your company is going to truly embrace innovation, it can’t be a side-project. Your company needs to shift the mindset of the people who work there. You might need to  It takes time and effort.

It’s not easy. But as they say, “if it were easy, everyone would do it”.