Easy as Cake

bigstock--cake 159887675Many leaders talk about the need for innovation in their organizations, however, in far too many cases, true innovation seems elusive. In most instances, it is not a lack of desire or effort that that impedes results, but rather a lack of the right blend of organizational ingredients.

Think of it like baking a cake. You can get all the best ingredients, measured out in the right amounts and set them side-by-side (you have top quality HR, and quality assurance, and product development), but if that’s all you do, you will never have a cake. It is the mixing of ingredients, in specific amounts, . . . it’s the dicing, the blending, the baking . . . that yields a prize-winning cake.

In their book Innovation to the Core: A Blueprint for Transforming the Way your Company Innovates, Skarzynski and Gibson talk about innovation as “combinational chemistry.” In effect, innovation isn’t about a “new” idea so much as it is taking a group of existing ideas/concepts — maybe from totally different fields or experiences — and putting them together in unique ways to create an entirely new solution.

So, when an organization challenges its “creatives” with innovation but does not include task or systems-oriented colleagues, it’s a bit like leaving the baking powder out of a cake — the flavor may be there, but it will never rise to its potential. Or maybe you always expect your senior, most experienced, staff to have all the good ideas. You know, there are only so many ways to combine the same ingredients, and after a while, everything you make with them starts to taste the same.

It takes a range of ingredients to make the best cakes, but how often do we have a diverse enough set of perspectives, ways of thinking and experience bases (or lack thereof!) as part of the ingredient list? Do we let it bake long enough? (How many “half-baked” concepts have you thrown out, lacking the patience for the idea to fully develop?) It may seem risky to add a spice you have never used before, leave out a “key” ingredient, or to use a new technique that feels a bit awkward at first (flourless cake . . . how can that be?!?). If there is a challenge to be solved, however, someone will come up with an innovative response. The question is, will it be you?

Sure, you will have some flops along the way. And some of the attempts will yield unexpected and delicious results. The simple fact is, the more cakes you bake, the more comfortable you become experimenting and trying unique combinations. First-time innovators will probably be most comfortable following a recipe. That’s fine, there are plenty out there. With practice, however, you will learn how to combine things in such a way to yield an entirely new creation. And that, my friend, is when you get to have your cake . . . and eat it too!

Be An Original

Every once in a while you run across a book that may defy popular perceptions, but absolutely resonates as true deep in your gut. (you know, those books that have you saying yesssss, and breaking out your highlighter.) Only a small handful of books have had that kind of impact on me, and Adam Grant’s new book is one of them. Originals, How Non-Conformists Move the World debunks some of the myths, with a host of examples and data, regarding how innovation really works. (If you don’t want to take the time to read an entire book based solely on my recommendation, at least take 15 minutes to watch his Ted Talk . . . then you’ll want to read the book!)

I think one of the myths that prevent people from innovating is the idea of risk. Especially in these financially challenging times (so the thinking goes), fiscally responsible organizations need to minimize their risk. The parable of the talents comes to mind when I hear such comments, but that’s another blog . . . Grant counters such thinking with the idea of the balanced risk portfolio. The most effective innovators are not the “burn the ships” zealots who place all their bets on a single idea. The individuals Grant highlights balance risk in one area with more conservative strategies in other areas. They have Plan Bs in place while they pursue their big ideas, much like you have a balanced stock portfolio.

The law of averages also comes into play. Babe Ruth was the strikeout king, but few remember that over his record-breaking number of home runs. Most successful ideas evolve over time, so innovators need to take a lot of swings — test a lot of ideas. Some will fail, some will be okay, but the law of averages would indicate others will be great innovations. Those who think, or have bosses who think, that they will only get one shot at innovation success rarely move their idea (which might actually be great) from concept to reality. Innovation is a mindset, not a task.

One final concept that resonated with me was that the road to innovation is often a meandering path that doesn’t happen on a tight timeline, and what some people see as procrastination may actually be processing! Sometimes even the best ingredients need to simmer for a while before they are ready. The insights we discover and connections we make while subconsciously working through an idea are often things we would have totally missed if the idea wasn’t already percolating in the back of our mind. Sure, we can’t process forever . . . but I’ve often found that you have to allow the time to connect the dots if an innovation is to be successful.

The larger lesson in all of this . . . conformity is over-rated. Want to move the world in 2017? Be an original.