Three tips for driving innovation in any organization

Technology executive and author Tom Kelley calls them devil’s advocates. Guy Kawasaki, another notable executive author, calls them bozos. Whatever label or moniker one attaches to them, they are the people in business organizations who act as speed bumps or roadblocks to innovation, and they are a powerful force in American business.So powerful, in fact, that they threaten to stifle the consistent and bold innovation that is considered a requisite of survival for American business. Fortunately, as Kelley explained during this fall’s Sales and Marketing conference titled the Distinctive Purchase Experience, there are ways to nurture innovation in your organization and overcome these forces.

Kelley, general manager of the product design firm IDEO and author of The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation, described how to lead with innovation to the approximately 250 attendees. As the general manager of IDEO, Kelley is familiar with the concept of innovation. The company has developed advances such as the Apple mouse, Amazon’s one-click purchase, and many of us observed his team on 60 Minutes as they applied innovation to the common shopping cart.

Kelley brought forward three tips for driving innovation in any organization:

1 – Think like a Traveler

When we travel, we have to open our eyes and look for creative ways to solve problems, especially when we travel to new, unfamiliar countries. Kelley told the story of a recent trip through Charles de Gaulle Airport. If you travel to Paris often, you know the most convenient and least expensive method to get from the airport to the city is the RER B suburban city train. You also know the turn-style that requires the insertion of a ticket to enter was not made for someone carrying baggage.

After Kelley’s frustration with the turn-style, he decided to take a seat and watch how everyone else dealt with the situation. Most held their two bags at shoulder height while struggling to get the ticket inserted. Some held the ticket in their mouth, and bent over to insert, proving a third arm was really what was needed. A few threw their bags over the contraption and then just walked through. Great drop test on the laptop! Innovation really came from those that realized teamwork was needed. They engaged a stranger or colleague to pass the bags through the entry system.

When you are traveling, you are forced to look at all situations as new and find innovative solutions. You have an opportunity to think like a traveler every day.

2 – Be Young at Heart

Kelley, who is willing to be unconventional, also encouraged sales and marketing executives to embrace a “reverse mentor” and be willing to learn from younger generations. “We call it the eggs leading the chickens,” he said.

Kelley has two reverse mentors, including a young professional named Chris, from whom he has learned about social networks like Facebook and MySpace, innovations like photo file sharing, and even some budding consumer trends. One day, Kelley noticed that Chris wasn’t wearing a wristwatch, which seemed peculiar to a man who practically has had one attached to him for 40 years.

Kelley explained, “So I said, `Chris, what’s up with that? You’ve got meetings to go to,’ and he said, `Look, I don’t need a watch. I’ve got my cell phone, which keeps perfect time. It never has to be reset when I go to a new time zone. It doesn’t have to be changed at Daylight Savings Time. What would I want a watch for?'”

Kelley had missed that little market trend and began to understand it only because he had a reverse mentor. “He’s helped me in a thousand different ways just keep track of what’s happening in the world,” Kelley said, “even if it’s happening outside of my personal demographic.”

3 – Invest in Learning and Storytelling

Throughout this blog, we often have conversations about storytelling and how to use stories and factoids to connect with your audience. Kelley brought forward another key value in story telling – combine this skill with learning. It’s been said many times that the best way to learn is with the intent to teach others. Said another way, learn something new, and use stories to teach others. Kelley said “be part student and part teacher.”

Kelley endorsed the Heath brothers and the book Made to Stick when talking about using stories to convey ideas and innovate. He stressed the philosophies of this book. Make stories simple, unexpected, concrete and emotional. Kelley was especially keen on making the story simple. He reminded everyone, that “it is okay to leave out all the details; distill the story to the essence. When the movie Alien came out it was described as the Jaws in space movie. Not a lot of details, but effective.”

As an example of strong storytelling, Kelley explained how IDEO teams are working in southern India to promote drinking healthier water. He noted, “When you just tell a mom that she should boil the water she serves to her children, one objection comes up every time. You guessed it. They say ‘My mom gave me water from that well and I’m fine.”

So Kelley and his team started traveling with a little more gear. They pack a projector, sheet for a screen and a generator because power is a rare find. They gather the village together with songs and dancing. After everyone has enjoyed some celebration they gather everyone and ask a child to go to the village well and get a cup of water.

When the child returns, they put the water on a slide and insert into a microscope attached to the projector. You can picture the outcome, yes the water is alive on the screen.

The team usually has a local water partner in tow, and now a drip of purified water is looked at under the microscope. While the water is not perfect, it is the clear winner.

Using this method of storytelling has resulted in seven times as many people switching to purified water compared to just telling the locals what should be done. Storytelling changes behavior.

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photo by nasacommons

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