I was recently asked by a Rocket Business Partner, Pentana Solutions, to give a talk on the topic of “Innovation”. Specifically:
- How do companies promote innovation
- How do companies create a culture of innovation
- How do companies prioritise and manage the Business As Usual Vs. Innovation
At first, I was a little perplexed. What do I know about Innovation? However, as I mulled over the topic, I saw parallels in my own work and home life. At work, in Rocket’s Sydney R&D Lab, we are innovating daily to build a truly user-focused, self-service, Cloud/mobile-enabled data discovery & exploration solution for our customers. At home, I struggle daily with the challenges posed by a study of jazz guitar: creativity, improvisation, innovation.
The first ‘lesson’ I considered is summed up by the words of educationalist Sir Ken Robinson, in a recent TED talk: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original“. Or as my jazz guitar teacher says, “Letting Go” – letting go of fear and inhibitions. Creating a culture of trust, removing or reducing fear of failure, creating an environment when team members feel empowered to think “outside the box”, these are all key elements to promoting originality, which leads to innovation. This ‘culture’ needs to be enabled at the individual level, at the team level, and at the organisation level. For the latter, the organisation needs to consider it’s ‘brand’, the image it wishes to portray. A stodgy, outdated website, or bureaucratic hiring processes are not going to attract the kind of “creatives” you want to employ in the first place: people with an aptitude for creative thought, a passion for innovation and change.
When Steve Jobs talked about his Macintosh development team at Apple, he talked about “..musicians and poets and artists… who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world”. He talks about “trying to expose yourselves to the best things that humans have done”. Get out of the office, take a walk, get inspired by the ideas of others, mix things up..
”Habitual thinking is the enemy of Innovation”
(Prof. Rosabeth Moss Kantor, Harvard Business School)
“It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”
Another important consideration is that Innovation can come from anywhere – it’s not just about product. Any process, any service can be improved. Sometimes the small things get overlooked, but innovative thinking could yield big improvements in unexpected areas. Be open-minded and willing to challenge perceptions. As Nolan Bushnell comments in his book “Finding the Next Steve Jobs”, Neutralize the Naysayers (“any idiot can say no”)
One often overlooked aspect of innovation is the thinking process itself. A great way to create ‘space’ for innovation is to give people time to think. Treat is as part of everyone’s job, make it a KPI. “Hackathons” and “Innovation Jams” are great, but innovative thinking should become part of everyone’s default thought process: how can this be improved? Allocate time for the thinking process. People like to create, like musicians with a tune in their heads. Our job is to capture and focus this creativity. Give space to people. We need to orchestrate, provide a vision, then allow the creative ‘juices’ to flow.
”Innovation is a state of mind”
(James O’Loughlin, The New Inventors)
A key area when it comes to Usability and User Interface Design, is Simplicity. Over the 20+ years I’ve been working in the Business Intelligence industry, it’s often seemed like simplicity has been the last thing on the software vendor’s minds. Yet when attempting to design a product for an end-user, self-service audience, rather than a ‘tech-savvy’ or IT audience, intuitive usability is critical. If a 4 year old child can use an iPad intuitively, why should a 40 year old executive have to struggle with some counter-intuitive, poorly designed piece of business software? It doesn’t make sense.
In John Maeda’s book ”The Laws of Simplicity”, he comments “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful”. Simplicity is about clarity, brevity, refinement, restraint.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” (Steve Jobs)
“What is sought in designs is the clear portrayal of complexity…”
“…not the complication of the simple”
Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
At Rocket we constantly question, reevaluate and revalidate our assumptions. We talk to customers and partners, clarify their assumptions and needs. We try to assume nothing. And as we continue to develop exciting new products such as Rocket Discover, I personally try to keep the following thoughts top of mind:
- Inspire yourself to inspire others
- Challenge the status quo
- Suspend disbelief and cynicism: Believe in the art of the possible
- Empathize – Listen – provide a ‘context to create’
- Empower the team
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