Written by Oscar Malpica from Envisioning Labs
So how do you come up with innovations? This is a common question we normally get when we explain customers and stakeholders what we do. Yes, as an innovation consulting firm it is our job to identify opportunities for innovation for our clients, and while there is certainly a methodology to it, it is hardly something reserved for “innovative people”, if such a thing exist. These are some fundamental lessons and tips for engineers we have assimilated over the years that we think would help them embrace innovation as a discipline that can and should be learned. Read on.
Lesson 1 - Dive in
Long gone are the days when, in order to be innovative, organizations had to hire PhDs and/or make heavy investments in robust R&D departments. While this is a corporate practice that remains standard, more and more agile organizations are looking into tapping to the wisdom of the crowds for their innovation needs. And this collective wisdom is a pearl of cross-disciplinary, multi-national, cross-generational, diverse and inclusive wisdom. No, we are not saying this because it is the polite way to go about nowadays to remain politically correct, we are saying this because innovation has been democratized in the last 20 years where everyone, everyone has a shot at a novel idea.
If we trace back the origins of this new wave of innovators we are of the opinion that it can be pinpointed to the appearance of Apple’s iTunes store. Think about it: that digital milestone meant that anybody that could code and with some knowledge of real-world problems could build packaged solutions on one of the fastest growing platforms the world has seen…and build empires around them. What it was once the exclusive domain of large corporations with extensive dev/engineering/R&D payrolls could be accomplished by a university student in her spare time.
The lesson: we live now in an era of democratized innovation, where people learn from YouTube and SkillShare courses. The opportunities for exploration and creation of things, solutions, experiences, breakthrough paradigms, and innovative business models have never been so reachable for the masses…for good or bad.
Lesson 2 - Shift your focus and embrace the chaos
As an engineer myself, I learned the ways of controlling my environment, understanding the linear correlations of the world, their causes and effects and even asking five times “why” to find the “root cause” of a problem. So when I learned the nuances of “Scenario-Focused Engineering” at Microsoft, I was very surprised that it did not have to do much with the engineering I learned at school.
Instead, this flavor of design thinking, or as it has been hailed for many years, “a systematic approach to innovation” had more to do with the psychology and behavioral analysis of the human at the center of the design exercise. In other words, fewer equations, more human observations. Soon I realized that to understand the term “innovation” I had to shift my focus from the word “engineering” to “scenario”, a scenario where a human was the main actor and thus it was imperative to understand him/her before proceeding to create anything.
Lesson 3 - Engage with your right brain
The current education system that prevails pretty much around the world is anchored on the division of knowledge that best served the needs of the industrial revolution. Compartmentalized areas of expertise that were highly focused on a particular discipline and its connection to other rather similar areas. But it wasn’t always like that.
Examples abound, but one of the most notorious ones was the largest university of ancient times, the House of Wisdom in present-day Baghdad. In this ancient institution, wisdom was the most sought-after value, not only data or information or even insights. And the way it was done was simple: they welcomed any and every piece of expertise no matter the area of knowledge; they knew that the understanding and, more importantly, the amalgamation of disciplines was the secret to innovative thinking.
As engineers, we seek solutions in true and tested support sources, but that will never help come up with real breakthroughs. By their very definition, these accomplishments can only happen when new ground is broken and more often than not this happens when dots are connected at the intersection of domains.
Lesson 4 - Systematize creativity
Just like any other hard science, innovation is actually a systematic discipline that can and should be learned. Unlike other hard sciences, however, it does not rely (entirely) on the scientific method in the sense that results may vary even under the same experimental conditions. This is simply because the actual value of innovation does not rely on the technological breakthrough per se. The fundamental importance of innovation is the ability for it to provide users and stakeholders value better than anyone else has been able to provide in the past. In other words, the value of an innovation center around its ability to solve a problem AND the adoption of this innovation. This simple principle which gets often overlooked is perhaps the most important aspect of innovation.
The democratization of emerging technologies and the dawn of lean methodologies for experimentation and fast prototyping are helping shape the way innovations are produced. What took years of research and sizable investments can now be achieved with short sprints and end up with a workable proof of concept.
We live in times where innovation has been essentially democratized and yet, it seems that organizations are still looking for the holy grail formula to manufacture innovation. The reality is that basic principles like the ones described above are industry agnostic and have endured the test of time. The secret for innovation is that there is no secret. If we embrace our curiosity and allow others to explore theirs, and as long as we direct these exploratory exercises towards identifying what are the delight factors that the user is seeking, one will inevitably step into the discovery of breakthrough innovation.