The many faces of innovation

By: Bill Van Eron Friday October 12, 2012 0 comments Tags: Bill Van Eron

By Bill Van Eron

Chief Innovation Strategist at Headwaters Marketing

As we all get duly excited about a new breed of social entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs in general, we generally make strong associations between them and innovation.

In truth, for many entrepreneurs, being "innovative" may not be the first attribute they accept as a personal virtue -- if at all.

Yet many of us eagerly bestow that attribute on them -- as a complement, of course, and accepted as such - but it just may not be so. While I love the justified attention innovation is getting and how many people can't wait to be associated with it, I also am seeing too much rah-rah and false edifices where real solutions with substance and accountability are vital now.

It's all good, just not good enough yet.

At a high level, few would disagree that we are at a critical time when innovation and a new breed of entrepreneurs will be the strongest catalyst to pulling our economy out of this awful recession -- but they really do need the right kind of help. Nor can I fully fault human nature, which easily associates innovation with any promising new business as well as larger companies that stay dynamic with their markets.

Let's dive a little deeper, though.

Part of the problem is that innovation management in itself is a skill set that -- at its best -- is very demanding and challenging to master. Yes, it can be learned, applied and has many different forms. It also is accepted as a virtue, such as creativity that most of us may have at birth, yet only a few learn how to tap into its ultimate expression.

As one who started as a trained and skilled creative professional -- and who has mindfully worked to evolve to mastering the very strategies organizations of any size need to apply to be seen and valued in their markets -- I have many product marketing friends who still regard creativity in general as "artsy, fartsy," thus inferring a less disciplined form of business.

Many in the creative profession, including myself, just shrug it off as just another limited viewpoint and simply shift to doing what we do to create value so the work speaks for itself -- even if how we do it remains a mystery.

When it comes to innovation, though, it really does pay to understand more of the forms it takes and the skills needed to manage it to a profitable and meaningful reality.

Shapes of innovation - Many years ago, Charley Prather -- who started the DuPont Center for Innovation -- had a sophisticated test to help assess what kind of innovation IQ a person had, where they may be best applying it, and which additional skills could be beneficial.

I couldn't wait to take it, knowing it would help me to round out my creative thinking skills with sound business skills. I was correct, as his test illustrated my promise. But while my initial Innovation IQ was off the charts, I saw it would be a problem  unless I complemented it with strong critical thinking and assessment skills.

I spent 15 years doing that, and I credit that skill with all of my successes, certainly as a core reason for my capabilities now.

In Charley's workshops, he often talked about the many forms of innovation and types of people vital to it happening. His wisdom now plays even truer today when Innovation shifts from an accent in business to center stage.

Visionaries and Processors - Yes, there are visionaries, leaders, and revolutionary thinkers who create disruptive technologies, products, science, art and new ways to think about ourselves, our community and our planet.

But there are also people with very different skills who know how to lead innovation, harness a wide set of skills to take on new ones, or continually refine something meticulously and cleverly to create an ongoing advantage in that category.

We see examples of both in healthcare, where major breakthrough cures are announced by these visionaries and then how surgical processes are continually improved and made safer by these processor types. We also are seeing incredibly smart people create systems that defy our imagination, whether in software, 3D animation or social networks.

Innovation Leadership & Management Skills - These are just a few of the ones I have come to realize as vital, highly respectable and yet not always properly understood or enabled.

The ability to do the following is important to leading innovation in itself and across an organization into the very communities that it benefits:

  1. To see innovation as a system and connect all the dots, even those few others see. By system, include product design, pricing, channel, sales, marketing and support, but extend it to your customer, all their upstream and downstream influencers and the very spirit of inclusiveness that will inspire greatness internally and externally.

  2. To help manage and inspire those connections into the most relevant whole.

  3. Understand and accept what you are good at and need help at and encourage people to be their best as they step up to the plate. Enable them.

  4. To maintain objectivity and openness beyond just the early stages of a product's development.

  5. 5.   To make being a company that stands for something meaningful as important as what you make. Be that new social entrepreneur.

  6. To champion your customer's needs, perceptions and support across all functions and decisions that will affect their view of your credibility.

  7. Devise methods and processes to assure the voice of your customer and your own internal organization is strong, ever present and always listened to. When acted on wisely, that creates buy-in and advocacy.

  8. Look at everything differently. Adapt obsolete functional approaches in sales, marketing, HR, manufacturing and communications to be dynamic in today's world, not yesterday's.

  9. Understand that the more human a business tries to be (an elusive goal) the more aligned it will become to the core reason it will survive. People-powered is the new business energy core, so love it, live it and enable it.

  10. For some of the large companies and universities out there - get over yourself. Forget that you're big and important and shift that passion to being relevant, responsive and accountable, and then innovation and prosperity will follow. The following would be a God-send if only companies and universities would adopt it with the passion many of us expect they should have:

    1. Accept that you are part of something bigger than just your department and step up when you can help your company or university to be bigger than the sum of its parts.

    2. Quit expecting the folks that can help you to be your best, to cater to your culture, size or personal view, especially where that view is limiting success.

    3. Understand that your world, your culture and priorities may have nothing to do with the world you accept and have to be successful in when you wish to commercialize ideas developed inside a university.  Make sure you enable those other, very different cultures, skills and viewpoints to thrive. There is no cheating that.

    4. Be inwardly passionate about killing bureaucracy because ultimately it will kill you and your organization. Outwardly, respect people and listen to all levels of employees but let people know you are available, approachable, open and wanting new ideas. Let them know you value your customers, employees and stakeholders and bureaucracy will disappear without ceremony.

    5. Understand and embrace accountability.

    6. Forget about control and working the system and start enabling, inspiring, prioritizing and rewarding the new work dynamics.

Many of us that follow trends in business and education are expecting that companies will demand these skills in leaders, and educators will eventually - versus proactively - adjust the aging model of the MBA (Masters in Business Administration) and seriously upgrade it to fit entrepreneurialism at all levels of business. That MBE (Masters in Business Entrepreneurialism) or MSE (Masters in Social Entrepreneurialism) or whatever they call it will be key to us embracing innovation as a skill and an admirable one at that.

It still may earn some "artsy fartsy" designations, but more of us will know better by then.

Note to readers: These blog topics are hopefully helpful and are offered as an experienced, qualified and unfettered "point of view." Opinions are respected when they are aligned to what we really believe and yet we should put them out there to invite healthy dialogue and adjust as we hear intelligent response. Most certainly, Colorado has a strong interest in innovation, so please do step up and join the discussion and respond respectfully to blogs with which you agree, disagree or have an additional point of view. InnovatioNews will work hard to deliver the news to you and yet the two-way dialogues are what will make us all thrive.
Bill Van Eron

About the Author: Bill Van Eron

For Bill Van Eron, life & work are all about conscious observation and earning our needed humanity high bar. Whether Bill was an art director or lead designer in NYC, the most demanding marketing environment, or shaping a more relevant brand for soon to be major companies in Denver, or across his 25-year career in HP, as its champion for progressive enlightenment, diversity, inclusion and the highest relevance, which followed every project, Bill stays inspired to help others shape a better world, lives & work as connected to greater attention to our humanity, creativity and value-creation. All as vital to any organization's greater success. Bill now is championing the first and most conscious innovations that resolve challenges to our planets environment, as well as business and government realizing each’s greater purpose and brand value. Tired of conventional approaches and willful ignorance, Bill was recruited as one who can champion each solutions authentic relevance. Bill hopes Colorado and Fort Collins can open up and get in flow, as a community Bill & his wife only wish the best for as also enabled with a view all others benefit by, whether they see it initially or not.