If you’re like most people, you probably think of creativity as something that only rare geniuses possess. And while it’s true that some people are naturally more creative than others, the good news is that anyone can learn to be more creative. All it takes is a willingness to change your thinking habits and experiment a little bit.
As a project manager, part of your job is to encourage creativity and innovation among team members. After all, it’s only by thinking outside the box that you come up with the best solutions to problems and deliver successful projects. But what does it take to manage the innovation process and get your team fired up? Here are a few tips.
What is innovation?
Innovation: the buzzword of the business world or the engine of growth? In its broadest sense, innovation is the introduction of something new. It may be a new product, a new service, a new process, or a new way of looking at things.
Innovation doesn’t have to be earth-shattering; it can be incremental and subtle. And it doesn’t necessarily require a huge budget. Sometimes, the simplest ideas can be the most effective. The key is to always be on the lookout for sources of improvement. After all, there is nothing so difficult that someone else can’t make it easier.
Why is innovation important?
Innovation is important for two main reasons. First, it allows businesses to stay ahead of the competition. Even if you aren’t innovating, your rivals will be, and they’ll soon overtake you.
Second, innovation is the key to growth. Without new ideas, businesses stagnate and eventually decline. And the only thing worse than no growth is negative growth.
Types of innovation
There are four common types of business innovation: product, process, business model, and marketing.
Product innovation is the introduction of a new or improved product. This could involve a new feature or an entirely new design.
Examples of product innovation:
- The introduction of the Apple iPhone
- The development of a new Coca-Cola flavor
- The creation of a new, more effective type of toothbrush
Process innovation is the introduction of a new or improved process. This could be a new manufacturing process, a new way of designing products, or a new way of delivering services.
Examples of process innovation:
- A new way of doing quality-control checks in a factory
- A new way of collaborating with virtual whiteboarding
- A new customer service method via website chatbots
Business model innovation
Business model innovation is the introduction of a new or improved business model. This could be a new way of selling products, a new pricing strategy, or a new way of delivering services.
Examples of business model innovation:
- The introduction of subscription-based streaming by Netflix
- The development of new distribution channels by Amazon
- A new loyalty program by Starbucks
Marketing innovation is the introduction of a new or improved marketing strategy. This could be a new way of advertising, a new promotional campaign, or a new way of segmenting customers.
Examples of marketing innovation:
- A new social media campaign by Nike
- A new pricing strategy by Walmart
- A new way of using customer data for targeted ads
Businesses can approach the innovation process in different ways, the most common models being disruptive, radical, and incremental.
Disruptive innovation is a game-changing breakthrough that completely transforms the way things are done. It’s the kind of innovation that creates entirely new markets and can make existing ones obsolete.
Examples of disruptive innovation:
- Airbnb home sharing
- GPS satellite navigation in cars
- Cloud computing technology
Radical innovation is all about creating something new for an existing market. It completely shakes up the industry, and it can make existing designs/services obsolete. However, unlike disruptive innovation, the goal of radical innovation is to become the dominant solution for an existing audience.
Examples of radical innovation:
- Netflix replacing video store models
- Apple creating the smartphone
- iPods replacing other portable media players
Read our guide to radical vs. disruptive innovation for more insight!
Incremental innovation is a small improvement that doesn’t make a huge splash in the industry but makes things better. Incremental improvements are often more achievable and less risky than radical or disruptive innovation, but they can still have a significant impact on business growth.
Examples of incremental innovation:
- New toppings for an existing food product
- A new way to pay on your app
- A new waterproofing layer added to a raincoat
Risks associated with the innovation process
As with any business initiative, there are risks associated with innovation. Here are the most common problems that can arise:
- Failure to meet customer needs: when trying to be innovative, it’s easy to get caught up in your own ideas and forget what customers actually want. Make sure you keep them at the forefront of your mind, or you could end up wasting time and resources on something with little market value.
- Imitation from competitors: if you create a successful new product or service, competitors will soon catch on. Be prepared for imitation, and have a plan in place to defend your market share. While being the innovator gives you bragging rights, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll stay ahead long-term.
- Lack of internal support: introducing new ideas can be disruptive, and not everyone will be on board with the changes. Make sure you have the support of key decision-makers within your organization, or your innovation efforts could be doomed from the start.
- Financial strain: the innovation process can be expensive, especially if you’re investing in research and development. Make sure you have the financial resources in place to support your initiative, or you could put the business at risk.
- Regulatory hurdles: in some industries, new products and services often have to meet stringent regulatory requirements before they’re launched. Considre how this could delay your plans and add extra costs.
- Technological obsolescence: technology evolves rapidly, and what’s cutting-edge today could be obsolete tomorrow. Focus on investing in new technology that will have lasting relevance in the future, so you don’t waste time and money.
- Market failure: for any number of reasons, an innovative product might not take off in the market. This is often beyond the company’s control and might simply be bad timing. Minimize your chances of a flop with some serious market research and a strong competitive positioning strategy.
The innovation process
Now that you know what innovation is, let’s take a closer look at how to manage it. The innovation process consists of four main stages:
- Ideation: this is the fun bit when you generate ideas! It’s important to involve as many people as possible in this stage, since you never know where the next great idea will come from. Brainstorming sessions, customer feedback, and market research can all be helpful here. And remember to keep judgment at bay. Some of the greatest ideas may seem downright terrible at first. Electricity running through the home? I’ll stick with a candle, thanks!
- Development: once you have a few promising ideas, it’s time to start fleshing out the details, testing feasibility, and making sure the idea is economically viable.
- Implementation: the implementation stage is when you put your innovation into practice. Start with a prototype or MVP before rolling it out at a large scale.
- Evaluation: after releasing a product, it’s important to take a step back and evaluate its performance. This will help you determine whether it’s a success and spot areas for improvement.
Let’s go into each of these stages in a little more detail.
The ideation stage is where you come up with all the potential solutions to your problem. To do this effectively, you need to identify the problem and gather together people who can bring valuable insight to the brainstorming process.
Ideas can come from anywhere, so don’t limit yourself to just the senior management team. Encourage employees at all levels to participate. If that sounds hectic, consider running team brainstorming sessions first and then holding subsequent meetings with representatives from each team.
There are a few different ideation techniques and resources you can use to spark innovation:
- Brainstorming: to do this effectively, you need to set some ground rules, such as no judgment and no criticism. Then, have everyone write down their ideas, no matter how off-base they may seem. Once you have a list, you can start to build on the ideas and narrow down the best options. You can try multiple methods, such as mind maps, use case scenarios, lotus blossom diagrams, and brainstorming games, to stimulate different types of thinking.
- Customer feedback: who’s going to know the most about your product? Your customers, of course! Find out what they need and want, and see if there’s anything you could be doing better. You can collect customer feedback through surveys, interviews, or focus groups.
- Market research: keeping up with industry trends is a must. This involves reading trade publications, attending conferences, and speaking with experts in your field. By understanding what’s happening around you, you’ll be in a better position to come up with ideas for innovation.
To develop your ideas further, you need to answer some important questions:
- How will this innovation solve the problem?
- What are the key features of this innovation?
- How does this innovation compare to existing solutions?
- What are the risks and challenges?
- Is this innovation economically feasible?
Once you’ve developed your idea and you’re confident you’re onto a winner, it’s time to implement it. Exciting times!
It’s important to have a clear plan in place for this stage. This should include setting milestones, establishing timelines, and assigning roles and responsibilities. You also need to make sure you have the necessary resources in place, including funding, human resources, and materials. A good understanding of triple constraint will come in handy if you’re the project manager.
A minimum viable product (MVP) is a great way to test the viability of your innovation without making a major commitment. With an MVP, you can test a low-spec version of the product on a smaller audience before making the big leap — much like dipping your toe in a pool to test the temperature.
Prototyping is another method for testing before on a smaller, controlled scale — and we highly recommend both. But at some point, you’ll need to move beyond this and roll out your innovation on a larger scale.
Work on encouraging company-wide acceptance of the idea first, with a clear pathway to help employees develop it further in line with customer needs. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to roll.
After implementation, the evaluation stage allows you to gauge the performance of your innovation. This will help you determine whether it’s a success and decide what steps to take next to continue developing or promoting the product.
There are a few different ways to evaluate an innovation:
- Customer feedback: one of the best ways to assess an innovation is to get feedback from customers. Surveys, interviews, and focus groups are all great options, as are comments on review sites and social media.
- Sales data: the proof is in the pudding, or so the saying goes. See how your innovation has affected sales, subscriptions, or any other metric you’re hoping to improve. This can give you a good idea of whether the product is meeting customer needs.
- Operational data: if your innovation is related to a system or process, you can use operational data to track performance. This could include metrics like throughput, error rates, or cycle times.
After you’ve gathered this data, you can start to analyze it and draw conclusions about the innovation. If it’s performing well, you can continue to roll it out. If not, you may need to make some adjustments or even scrap the idea altogether.
Innovation process best practice
While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, there are some best practices that can help you improve your chances of success.
Pixar famously documented the benefits of fostering creativity in the workplace. So take a leaf out of the company’s book, and do what you can to boost this elusive, yet achievable skill. Give employees the freedom to explore new ideas and take risks. You can also provide resources like time, money, and training to help them get inspired and develop their ideas.
Think outside the box
To be truly innovative, you need to embrace wildcard ideas. This means looking beyond your existing products, services, and processes for inspiration. Consider other industries or radically different processes for ideas.
Fail fast, fail often
The old business adage has endured so long because it’s true. Not every innovation will be a success. In fact, most will probably fail. And that’s ok! The key is to fail fast and learn from your mistakes. Onwards and upwards…
Iterate, iterate, iterate
The creme de la creme of innovations are usually the result of many iterations. So, don’t be afraid to experiment and make changes along the way. The more you test and refine your ideas, the better the chance of coming up with a winner.
Encourage customer feedback
As we’ve seen, customer feedback is essential for evaluating an innovation. But it can also be helpful during the development process. Encouraging customers to give feedback early and often can help you ensure that your innovation is on track and meeting their needs.
Make it easy to experiment and take risks
Experimentation, risk, and curiosity lie at the heart of all great innovations. This doesn’t mean giving everyone free rein to do whatever they want. But it does mean creating an environment where it’s okay to fail and encouraging people to try new things. To embrace this in your workplace, consider creating dedicated space and time for experimentation or providing resources like funding and training.
Use collaboration tools
A wealth of collaboration tools are at your fingertips, and not making the most of them would be a big mistake. Look beyond email, and share ideas with data visualization tools, project management software, and chat apps, especially for remote or hybrid teams. In other words, make it as easy as possible for employees to develop ideas as a team.
Innovation is essential for any organization that wants to stay competitive. By following the steps outlined above, you can raise your chances of success. But it’s important to remember that innovation is not an exact science; there will always be some element of risk involved. If you’re able to embrace this risk, learn from your failures, and take advantage of the tech available to you, you’ll be in a good position to innovate your way to a winning idea.