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Business Innovation for Dummies: Asking the Right Questions

With all the geeky glitz and glam that infuses today’s tech industry — dozens of new apps a week, Mark Zuckerberg and his famous hoodie, CEOs dancing “Gangnam Style” during conference keynotes (seriously, I’ve witnessed this myself two whole times) —  business innovation can often be mistakenly thought of as some unbridled mosh pit of imagination! and creativity! and other crazy fun stuff!

And while being cutting edge is certainly about a willingness to dream daringly, you can’t ask a group of people to toss their mental tchotchkes into a pile and expect a unicorn to materialize as a result. Innovation requires a bit of framework.

Our Problematic Lives

Innovation begins, first and foremost, with discovering a problem. Taxi cabs are a fine method of transportation, for example, but sometimes you can’t find one and that’s a problem. Enter Uber/Lyft/etc. And renting movies at Blockbuster was also a fine system, unless you didn’t want to get in your car and drive to the nearest location, which, was likely the case if your evening plans consisted of staying home and watching a movie. Enter Netflix.

So trust that there’s a number of problems — 99, perhaps? — to be discovered. No matter the niche, there’s always room for improvement.

“What’s missing is a clear set of principles for action,” writes Forbes contributor Greg Satell. “What good is Steve Jobs’ unfailing design sense when I can’t even get my outfits to match?  How can Google’s technological supremacy be relevant to me when I can’t even figure out my TV remote?  In other words, we need to take innovation down from the presentation screen and into working life. Even the most competent firm which deploys resources wisely still needs to manage innovation effectively.”

Innovation Management 101

As a starting point, Satell recommends approaching innovation with two basic questions:

1. How well is the problem defined? 

“When Steve Jobs set out to build the iPod, he defined the problem as ‘1000 songs in my pocket.’  He was a master at defining a clear product vision. Unfortunately, some problems aren’t so easy to frame, like how to create a viable alternative to fossil fuels.  So determining how well the problem is defined is a key part of developing an actionable strategy.”

2. Who is best placed to solve it? 

“Once Jobs defined the iPod problem, it was clear that he needed to find a disk drive manufacturer who could meet his needs and, once he did, he built one of the most successful products in history.  Yet, again, sometimes the proper domain to solve a problem isn’t so cut and dried.”

They may seem a bit on the basic side, but in this case, the power is in the simplicity.

“One thing I like about these questions is that they clarify the issues quickly,” continues Satell.  “Either there is a simple answer or there isn’t.  Once you start asking them, you are well on your way to defining a viable approach.”

A Spoonful of Structure

Exciting as new discoveries can be, at the end of the day innovation is still a business process, and business processes need to be linked to effective management and strategy. In addition to Satell’s questions, I would check out Tim Kastelle’s three horizons model, which lobbies for a 70/20/10 split between improving existing products, adjacent growth and exploring new markets.

Got any other innovation resources in mind? Drop them in the comments below.