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How to be more innovative

New IdeasBig organisations struggle to innovate; even those with large R&D departments. They’re so invested in their core business that most new ideas are just extensions of what they already do. They’ve become so focused on, and so good at, delivering the day job, at “operations management”, that there’s room for very little else.

It’s the same across industries, governments and non-profits: the culture and the skills you need to land radically innovative ideas are not the same as those you need to run a large, efficient organisation. Great managers rarely make good innovators, and there’s a reason for that.

Good operations management is focused on improving productivity and reducing chance events. It lends itself to incremental improvements, like Dave Brailsford’s cycling philosophy of “marginal gains”. In stable environments, it’s a winning approach. But radical innovation is something very different.

Radical innovation is about connecting and combining ideas from often completely unrelated fields and, more importantly, having the time, space and resource to try stuff and to fail (Edison’s 90% perspiration). Both are expensive, time consuming, and only occasionally successful. Both embrace the idea of chance events. As an inventor friend told me “You meet enough different people, you’re going to come up with ideas. Most will be rubbish, but you’re betting at some point you’ll hit on a gem. The key is to spot it, get off your arses and do something with it”.

That entrepreneurial approach is stifled in large organisations – it runs counter to the culture; and it certainly doesn’t fit into the economic model. How do you write a business case for something that has a 95% chance of producing no benefit whatsoever? Giants like Google recognise it as an issue; that’s why they spend huge amounts of money on a regular basis hovering up smaller companies for their ideas and technology, but we can’t all afford to do that.

For the rest of us, radical ideas are most likely to come from partnerships, networks and collaborations with those who can take the time, and the risks, to be genuinely innovative. So instead of trying to be more innovative yourself, go out and start finding, and building supportive relationships, with organisations who already are.

Bottom Line:  Don’t waste time trying to be something you’re not. Recognise your strengths, and find others who can help you innovate.

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