If you boiled down what really makes innovation happen, it would be very hot and gooey. Boiling does that.
But seriously folks...
As an attendee/co-chair/emcee at the Innovation Immersion over the past 10 years, I've seen a lot of presentations that offer up suggestions for "how to drive innovation." And I've enjoyed and learned from all of them, and revelled in the debates that ensued (my two favorites, "Stage-gate doesn't work," (George Land) vs. "Stage-gate is the only way!" (Deloitte & Touche) and "Brainstorming doesn't work" (Larry Keeley, Doblin) vs. "We use brainstorming all the time for our outstanding results" (Tom Kelley, IDEO) . And I believe the presenters who advocate that their suggestions really work: systems, processes, procedures, tools, business models, alliances, arrangements, and so forth. Especially in their organizations, with their challenges, in their context.
Yet the common thread among all of those items is that they are systems designed to bypass defects. In other words, all of these approaches are designed to work around the fact that the main obstacle to innovation is the human being. Yes, it all boils down to people. The inability of people to see things in new ways and to do things differently. All of the innovation methods are basically ways to get people to work.
Once we understand this as the challenge, then we can see that the most common driver of innovation is people, which brings us to our list.
10 things that really drive innovation:
1) The individual. You can ask "an organization" all day long to do something, but the basic building block of getting things done is an individual. Organizations, departments, divisions, groups, teams, etc. are all things that anthropologists describe. And they're all units made from multiple people. Focus on the building block to start moving the needle on innovation.
2) The team. Individuals make things happen, but in most cases, they can't do it all by themselves. Innovation requires multiple skillsets, whether it's invention, development, funding, marketing, patenting, operations, etc., those skillsets almost never exist in one person, so it requires multiple people to move it forward.
3) The enterprise. Work-teams start to become inefficient at a certain quantity. Individuals and teams can only do so much. So the enterprise is created in order get people working towards a common goal/purpose in order to create revenue and growth to sustain all of the people involved.
These three levels are important to think about across the following additional drivers:
4) Processes: Consider the processes and how they are different at the individual level (e.g. using TRIZ to discover some inherent contradictions in a challenge), the group process (e.g. using a structured "brainstorming" or "ideation" system to generate ideas from a team), and the enterprise level (e.g. the organizational system for idea management).
5) Offerings: There are many ways to look at what is "an innovation," or the artifact of the innovation process. To only see innovation as "a product" is to overlook services, business models, alliances, processes, channels, and more. Expanding your scope to see that the BIG innovations were more than just a simple "product," can change the way you see the world. The iPod would be nothing but a cool-looking gizmo if we couldn't easily purchase and load music into it.
6) Psychological climate. What are the stories that the individual is telling him/herself about what's working? What's not working? What's acceptable? What's our industry? What's their scope? Does this make a difference to innovation? Absolutely, because how one defines the world will shape the newness that they create and enable.
7) Physical environment. Are people able to get together to communicate and work together? Are they able to escape and think in peace and quiet? Can they find a space to spread out and dig into prototypes/results/data? Think about the physical space in which people work such that it enables innovation (Hint: everyone has a different concept of the ideal environment).
8) Organizational culture. What are the stories that people tell in the organization about success? What are the ways that people discover and share about how things really get done? Any process and procedure that is set up usually has a workaround. What organizational leaders say are often drowned out by what people know is really going on.
9) Economic climate/market conditions. Want to see innovation dry up and fade away? Announce a layoff/cutback/restructuring. Want to see people start to play it safe and stop putting things at risk? Let people know that sales are down, or that the economy is in the tank. Fortunately, we know nothing about that currently. Right. Similarly, when people know that things are good, and that jobs are safe, they can really stretch out. Or, they may risk new things when it's the last gasp, last chance for survival.
10) Geopolitical culture. Where you were born, where you live, where you work, and the culture of those elements all make a difference. We all know that different cultures communicate differently, see the world differently, perceived different threats, and find value in different things. Internet services are viewed differently if you have an always-on, high bandwidth connection, verus if you're not sure if you'll have electric power in five minutes.
Boil all 10 of these drivers down, and it all amounts to people or the output of people. Yes, to paraphrase the famous line from the movie Soylent Green, "Innovation is people!" And that's the secret to innovation.