Expert Advice on Being an Innovator in Your Field


Innovation is not an easy concept to pin down. However, it can be roughly defined as the creation of better ways of doing things that are useful to individuals, businesses, governments, and society as a whole.

Where invention is creation of a brand new product, technology, or method, innovation is more about improving existing products and methods to make them better. The line between the two is not always clear, as innovation sometimes makes use of a new invention, and inventions are often sparked by innovation.

When you think of the sheer technological power available to the average consumer today, it’s no wonder that innovation is what drives new and better business technology. The smart phone you hold in your hand has more computing power than the machines that put a man on the moon. Think how simple processes like making banking transactions have changed in only the past couple of years.

Business.com recently spoke with Braden Kelley — thought leader, blogger, and co-founder of www.innovationexcellence.com — about how businesses and individuals can influence innovation and become leaders in their field.

Q. In your writings, you mention “innovation alliances” between companies, and how they can be keys to growth and leadership in any industry. You also speak of the need for such alliances between countries, much the way countries form military alliances. Can you explain your vision of innovation alliances between countries and how you envisioning them affecting the world’s business landscape?

A. The recent economic history of the world has featured more of a pyramid structure — with lots of poor countries on the bottom and a few rich countries at the top. With the rise of the knowledge economy, outsourcing, free trade agreements, and the increasing democratization of the means of production, this pyramid is becoming narrower at the bottom and wider in the middle and even the top.

Along with these changes has come an increasingly competitive brain race to go with the long running arms race as countries seek to climb the economic pyramid by trying to create or import a larger number of higher-paying knowledge jobs. But, at the same time, creating and protecting intellectual property (IP) on a global basis still remains a difficult, complicated proposition. For example, in one recent IP-focused dispute, South Korean courts ruled that Samsung didn’t copy Apple’s iPhone, while American courts ruled the exact opposite.

Situations like these highlight why countries may start to see some benefit in working together more closely to protect intellectual property, or to create it by collaborating on government funding of research, or both. Imagine if free trade agreements could be expanded to become free innovation agreements. What if the United States government was allowed to fund foreign researchers and those countries agreed to protect the outcomes of that research (and not steal it as part of rampant nation state industrial espionage)? If companies (and countries) aren’t already building Global Sensing Networks they really should be.

Q. The fields of “big data” and data science are becoming more prominent as more customer data than ever before is created. How do you imagine businesses using big data to their advantage in innovating processes and products?

A. When it comes to data, it doesn’t matter how big it is. Ask any marketer and they would tell you that they’d rather have one piece of actionable data than 100 pieces of interesting data. Actionable data is the key, not big data. Unfortunately, many people are focusing on bigger being better. Personally, I would rather understand the customer better, not know more about them, and these two are often not directly correlated.

Actually,  in a lot of cases, big data can be incredibly inefficient. I had a client whose data was so big that we couldn’t communicate with the customer in a meaningful way because it took so long to process the data set that by the time it was processed we couldn’t guarantee that they hadn’t already acquired the second or third product that we wanted to suggest to them next.

I’m working with another client with a lot of data right now, and another problem I’m seeing is that a lot of the data companies think they are capturing isn’t necessary valid, nor does one data source connect to another as easily as you might think. This leaves me advising many clients to design data capture very strategically by asking the simple questions: “What will I do with this data?” and “Will this data be actionable or merely interesting?”

Too often, these questions are not asked, and as a result we end up with big data — not insightful data. In a perfect world, what I would tell people is that when it comes to big data, there might be nuggets in there, and so as you dig, dig for actionable data. Dig for insights that tell you something about the customer that you’ve always wanted to know but never could find out before.

Q. Some experts talk about how the vast quantities of customer data generated today transcends or even vaporizes industry boundaries. How does this drive innovation and competition?

A. There is so much data being captured and available these days, companies have to think about the data they have and think about what other data sources it might be interesting to match their data up against. Most of the interesting big data solutions so far have been about connecting company or government or NGO data with location data. This is, of course, one obvious source of innovation and visualization, but it is unlikely to be the only data mashup. Companies have to think about what data they wish had, and then think about who might have that data, while also thinking about which other industries might have the data. It doesn’t have to be their own industry — and is actually a more powerful potential competitive advantage if it is not.

Q. How do companies “reframe the question” to come up with innovative new ideas? Can you give us some examples?

A. The most popular way to reframe the question is to think about what job the customer is trying to get done instead of thinking about the product you have (or want to build). There is a famous quote from legendary Harvard Business School marketing professor Theodore Levitt that captures this way of reframing the question, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”

Some of my favorite examples of products that reframed the question are the Magic Mesh instant screen door which is a $14.99 screen door you can walk through, and the Invisible Bike Helmet. You have to watch the video to the end to understand how they reframed the question.

Companies can also use a methodology like the popular SCAMPER  to reframe the question and the approach to the solution in several different ways.

Q. We often think of innovation on a corporate level. But how can ordinary workers use innovation to their advantage? For example, if an administrative worker develops a new, easier way to schedule employee shifts, how can he or she get the attention of executives and put the new process into practice?

A. Innovation can be pursued at every level of the organization in big ways and small ways, at least when it is pursued with the mindset that my definition of innovation engenders.

My definition of innovation is this: “Innovation transforms the useful seeds of invention into solutions valued above every existing alternative, and makes them widely adopted.”

You will notice several key distinctions contained within the definition, “invention vs. innovation” and “useful vs. valuable.” Not all inventions become innovations, and one of the biggest reasons is that many inventions create solutions that are useful, but don’t create enough value to make people want to transition from their existing solution (even if it is the do-nothing solution) to the new one. They just find the invention to be too expensive or too much work or just don’t understand it.

This is why it is important that you are creating solutions valued above every existing alternative, and why I like to say that Innovation is All About Value. The main premise is that true innovation comes from doing a really good job — not just at Value Creation, but at Value Access (helping people unlock the value) and Value Translation (helping understand how it fits into their lives) as well.

And when employees have a simple framework like the Eight I’s of Infinite Innovation in the back of their mind (or on their wall) to guide them, they can create great things with their coworkers now and in the future.

Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery


Business.com Editorial Staff

Business.com Editorial Staff

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The Business.com Editorial Staff writes on topics relevant to small and medium-sized business (SMB) owners. Posts cover best practices, top tips, and studies that deliver insights specific to SMBs.

Our team has backgrounds in journalism, English, philosophy, marketing, entrepreneurship and management, providing us the opportunity to share unique viewpoints on all things affecting small and medium-sized businesses.

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