A sure-fire way to commercial success is giving people something new they truly and desperately want. Innovation — the connection of something novel with a need — has become a heady concoction that a growing number of organizations pursue.
The Pentagon continues accelerating its effort to source innovation from more places — for instance, it opened its latest innovation-focused office in Austin, Tex. last week as it has done in both Silicon Valley and Boston. CEOs of large businesses and heads of not-for-profit organizations often tell me about their need for innovation.
Many ask whether large organizations can learn to pivot, and embrace innovative change the way smaller companies and individuals seem to be able to.
Let’s look at what innovation means. Some describe it as the process of combining entrepreneurship and technology to create something new, but that definition shortchanges the fresh ideas that don’t necessarily use technology. It would also imply that large organizations probably couldn’t be innovative, since entrepreneurs generally do not like working in large organizations.
Others tie innovation to commercial outcome, but this devalues the multitude of opportunities for innovation to positively change an organization without necessarily turning a profit. Innovating for social benefit is not profitable in a monetary way.
Instead, innovation is the conversion of a creation into something that satisfies a need. This is an important nuance. Creativity on its own doesn’t need to influence or sway others; it’s a human behavior. Innovation, however, makes users respond and act in a new way, see things differently, feel differently — and, to want to feel that way again.
So innovation can be large or small, broad or narrow in focus and application. Innovation is a naturally occurring phenomenon when people are given an opportunity to be creative and then share their new ideas.
The first trick is establishing conditions for people to dream, to wonder and ponder. This “fuzzy thinking” is the process of gathering information and considering alternatives in a somewhat wandering, less directed path.
The second challenge is to create structured processes that convert the lessons learned from fuzzy thinking into something distinct and repeatable. An organization must be able to duplicate and distribute the new idea in ways that do not dilute the power of the innovation.
This balancing act of fuzzy thinking versus structure is hard to do at scale. The best organizations allow for fuzzy thinking to be exercised and shared freely and with few constraints. This facilitates a feedback loop between creator and recipient, and speeds up the process of assessing whether an idea works. These organizations have processes in place to get innovations into the world without dilution or friction.
True, for larger organizations the ability to encourage fuzzy thinking is difficult because it runs counter to the needs of project management and goal attainment that large companies believe they need to function. Yet it is up to those managers to learn how to be more nimble in both theory and practice. The world is evolving quickly, and if a large organization is not changing with the times, it risks becoming extinct.
Large organizations can be innovative. Creativity is an attribute we all have in varying degrees, and is in ample supply among employees. We don’t need technology or entrepreneurs to be innovative.
Innovation comes from an organization’s willingness to allow employees to daydream and convert those dreams to something compelling. Any organization can do this, if it’s willing.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, an Arlington-based organization that seeks to connect innovators to government agencies. He is host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program, and lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.