I’ve just participated in two webinars about innovation.  Claire Schooley and I hosted How To Foster, Manage, And Sustain Innovation. And Forrester alumnus, Navi Radjou, who is now with the Center for Creative Leadership and author of  Jugaad Innovation just gave a webinar on that topic. Navi talked about “doing more with less”—a big concept sweeping through emerging markets like India and Brazil.  Navi argues that improvised ingenuity has taken a backseat to structured innovation, leading to high R&D costs and stifled creativity.  And he took a swing at Six Sigma, arguing that it gets 99.999% sameness, or “better sameness” in Forrester’s view.

Forrester defines innovation as:

the transformation of a business process, market offering, or business model to boost value and impact for the enterprise, customers, or partners.

It’s time to think creatively about ideas for innovation. Look to:

  • Customers and partners –Steve Jobs famously said (sorta) that he didn’t need no stinkin’ focus groups— because they surface incremental improvements rather than real breakthroughs. But when asked correctly, customers and partners can be a major source of ideas because they often conceive radically different uses of your product.  The trick is to talk with them informally about what they do and how they would like to work and then have a formalized process for bubbling ideas back into marketing and R&D. Instead of talking feature/function, have them do blue sky thinking.  Hold Imagineering sessions to think creatively about whatever would help with their jobs—not just your products or services.  You’ll be surprised.  Or give them tools and watch what they do.  For example, a health care provider gave iPads to nurses, asked them to use the iPads however they wished and then returned later to learn about many ideas the nurses thought of.
  • B-School and Engineering School competitions – many universities sponsor business plan competitions in their B-schools and engineering schools.  These competitions involve multiple teams of students or former students (typically, a minimum of one team member must be full time)—sometimes attracting as many as 75-100 groups.  Teams get narrowed down and the finalists develop and present full blown business plans to judges who may include entrepreneurs, business execs and venture capitalists.  The presentations are often open to outsiders who may be looking for new ideas and a team to back. 
  • University competitions – It’s also possible to maintain long-lasting relationships with selected business and engineering schools, and use them as your private source of innovation through competitions that you sponsor among students or across selected universities.  IBM has developed both broad and deep relationships with universities across the globe, and then works with specific schools as sources of innovations.  For example, IBM developed an innovative virtual world game that depicts how to use process modeling and BPM software to transform processes within a virtual company. This virtual world much more effectively showcases IBM’s product than presenting the concept through PowerPoint. Interestingly, this idea was the result of intense competition between two rival schools.
  • Crowdsourcing – One famous example of innovation crowdsourcing is Cisco’s search for the next big thing in late 2007 (see Harvard Business Review, Sept 2009). More than 2,500 innovators from 104 countries submitted approximately 1,200 distinct ideas.  The prize? A whopping $250,000 to the idea owner.  Cisco found its innovation in a new sensor-enabled smart electricity grid.  Another great example of innovation crowdsourcing is www.kickstarter.com, where innovators seek micro-investors.  But crowdsourcing isn’t just meant for big ideas—it can be applied to little innovations.  My friends are working on their next high-tech startup, having successfully sold their first company.  Instead of using expensive graphics designers, they solicited crowdsourcing proposals on a new logo.  In less than 24 hours they received over 400 proposals from companies around the globe and eventually chose an Asian winner for less than $400. Or take the bestselling Business Model Generation; it was co-authored by 470 practitioners from 45 countries and then financed and produced independently of the traditional publishing industry.  What an innovative crowdsourcing way to write a book about an innovative idea— creating new business models.
  • Consultants/BPOs –contractors can be great sources of innovation.  Consultants often fly in top talent to their major accounts as part of business development efforts.  And BPOs are keen to demonstrate their business acumen beyond just running your operations more cheaply, so they will also come in and brainstorm ideas with you as a way to demonstrate their competence.  For more on this, see http://blogs.forrester.com/connie_moore/12-03-02-sourcing_innovation#node-7427