What's to come in innovation

Time machine

You don't need a time machine to know the future of

innovation management ... read on.

When you think about the next 10 years for innovation, and what big discoveries will come, it’s tempting to think of specifics: exciting new products, new game-changing technologies, emerging market spaces, or what products Apple will invent. But I think the biggest innovation will be far simpler, with far more reach and impact than any specific product or technology.

It will be the practice of innovation management itself.

Back in 2001, the innovation management space was fit only for early adopters who were willing to invest serious time and effort into understanding the complex problems of engaging large amounts of employees, voluntarily, to help the company innovate. It was tricky ground, and many mistakes were made. In 2010 the space is mature, innovation management is well supported by a host of idea management practices and technologies, companies are finding it essential for remaining competitive and efficient.

The practice  is still complex, and methods vary for each company and industry. But the practice is being refined and refined, and given another 10 years, it will be so well understood that it will be the foundation of how many companies operate. Just how the last 50 years were dominated by the practice of management itself, and the ability to run a company with thousands of employees, the next 50 years will be all about companies that innovate by nature, and take management to the next level. Apple and Google are leading the charge, innovating as a cultural norm rather than desperately trying to retro-fit new practices into a bolted-down 20th-century culture.

Dramatic changes will affect the way in which employees operate. Take the concept of "flip-thinking," for example: the notion of flipping things on their head to truly innovate and change the way traditional methods work. Daniel Pink writes in a recent article how an American math teacher took the format of teaching during class, then setting the 30 questions for homework, and turned it on its head. Now, he tapes the class sessions, uploads them to YouTube, and sets that as the evening work. In class, they work through the 30 questions together.

Lectures at night, homework in class. Brilliant, because:

“When you do a standard lecture in class, and then the students go home to do the problems, some of them are lost. They spend a whole lot of time being frustrated and, even worse, doing it wrong ... The idea behind the videos was to flip it. The students can watch it outside of class, pause it, replay it, view it several times, even mute me if they want ... That allows us to work on what we used to do as homework when I’m there to help students and they’re there to help each other.”

As technology develops, the key is to find simple ways to take advantage of that technology to change existing practices - to flip-think what everybody already knows. The future of innovation management won’t be all about inventing the next technology - most companies simply won’t be in the game to do that - but rather finding smarter ways to do the human stuff around it.

Another trend seen in recent times is the obsession for finding the big idea that somebody magically comes up with. It’s a huge misconception that idea management is about locating multi-billion dollar concepts right out of nowhere. If you get one of those, good for you, but really, don’t expect it. Idea management is about changing your company culture to work collaboratively, to innovate by second-nature, in every single corner of the business.

Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, explains his thinking around this in a recent interview:

“Innovation is one of those cases where the defining image, all the rhetoric and all the assumptions about how it happens, turn out to be completely backward. It's very, very rare to find cases where somebody on their own, working alone, in a moment of sudden clarity has a great breakthrough that changes the world. And yet there seems to be this bizarre desire to tell the story that way.”

Innovation management will redefine this thinking in the coming 10 years. Companies will use technology to collaborate, to combine threads of ideas, to share best practice, and to accelerate the pace of change so quickly, that it becomes part of the job to adapt and reinvent. Solving really difficult problems on a large scale is often about perspective - and the trick is to get as many valuable and rich perspectives as possible, and by exposing them all to each other, the solution starts to form. It is not about one individual sitting on the idea to change the company over night, as Johnson continues to explain:

“What this means, in practical terms, is that the best way to encourage (or to have) new ideas isn't to fetishise the "spark of genius," ... to blabber interminably about "blue-sky", "out-of-the-box" thinking. Rather, it's to expand the range of your possible next moves – the perimeter of your potential – by exposing yourself to as much serendipity, as much argument and conversation, as many rival and related ideas as possible; to borrow, to repurpose, to recombine.”

Expand the range of your possible next moves. A brilliant notion – and that is why innovation really can work when you engage your workforce, because you add thousands of extra moves to your game. And, the more you perform idea management in your company, the more it becomes a cultural norm, the more combinations of thought will come together to form brilliant ideas.

It used to be "fortune favors the brave," but in the coming years it will be, "fortune favors the connected mind," as Johnson says. Those companies that connect more thoughts together, more regularly, will innovate on a higher playing field. The next 10 years of innovation will be about the practice of doing this, and which companies will excel through adopting the practice of innovation management. And the ones that don't? Well, good luck to them.

It's definitely becoming an

It's definitely becoming an arms race. Tools, processes, people, agencies - companies are hunting for the ways to make innovation sustainable that's for sure.

Trouble is some are trying to do it for as little effort and investment as possible. And that, I think, will define the future: Who gets it and invests and who doesn't and merely plays lip-service.