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Six Ways to Elevate Your Innovation Games

improve innovation strategiesJust got back from speaking at a large conference of retail professionals in Scottsdale, Arizona. Bricks and mortar retailers these days are quickly becoming the proverbial “canary in the coal mine,” as economic and consumer trends hit them first. The death of Radio Shack, Borders, Comp USA, Blockbuster, A&P and others has energized this sector, and given rise to the notion that innovation is everybody’s business, not just the C-Suite.

For retailers, and for a growing number of industries, disruption is no longer a theoretical construct. It’s the reality that confronts each of us with a choice every single day: do I busy myself fighting fires and trying to be efficient? Or do I try to add value, and come up with ideas and innovation strategies that help my organization fight back and win in the marketplace?

The retailers in Scottsdale chose to elevate their game. Here are six ways to elevate yours:

  1. Embrace the Opportunity Mindset. I once asked interior designer Pamela Armstrong about her innovation process. “First of all,” she explained, “it’s not separate from my life. I don’t set aside an hour to be innovative. [innovation] is at the core of who I am, and wonder is ever present in my mind. I am interested in everything, especially people: who they are, what fascinates them, why they choose their professions, how they view the world, what colors stimulate their thoughts and creativity.”                                                                                           When I asked how she brings out the creative best in the teams she works with she responded: “On my projects, I want every contributor to be looking at how what [they] do affects what the next person will do, and the overall look/feel/functionality of the project. I don’t want to work with a tile setter who just comes in and sets tile in a pattern I drew. I want the tile setter who sees the pattern and point out that if we center on the grout line rather than the middle of the tile we will have fewer cuts and a more balanced design.”                                                                  You and I may not work in an officially “creative” profession like design, but we can still invite creativity into everything we do. To add value, differentiate our solutions, and drive growth. What’s your innovation process? How do you shift out of burnout and distraction mode and into Opportunity Mode, where ideas start flying like popcorn on a red hot skillet.
  1. Inspect your idea factory regularly. Your “to do” list is a snapshot of the ideas you’re working on right now. What does your list reveal? Are the ideas mostly related to your basic functional duties, or are there also ideas related to strategic goals and opportunities and projects? How many truly strategic ideas are on that list, versus tactical? Everybody must execute routine details. But if you go for days and days running like the hamster on the wheel, your idea factory is greatly in need of retooling. It’s not that you aren’t generating ideas– you almost certainly are. The problem is that you aren’t capturing them, honoring them when they occur, and sifting and selecting the ones you want to act on and implementing them in systematic fashion.
  1. Eliminate Distraction. Research shows that we now check our devices 78 times a day, and we are interrupted – or interrupt ourselves — every three minutes. All this at the same time when my own informal surveys of audiences indicate we need three to four times as many ideas to meet the challenge of industry disruption, technological upheaval, and global competition. The Information Overload Research Group, a nonprofit consortium of business professionals, estimates that knowledge workers waste 25 percent of their time dealing with huge and growing data streams coming at them.                                                                     Most managers have absolutely no strategy for managing the deluge. They are over-scheduled, over-stimulated, over-connected and overwhelmed. They become reactors, grazers, skimmers, multi-taskers. Yet, we know from research that breakthroughs come from diving deep, questioning assumptions, parsing problems, probing possibilities … and sticking with it. The first assumption that must be assaulted is the one that says we cannot carve out quality time to think. Eliminating distraction during certain periods is essential for success in the digital age.
  1. Download your Ideas. Try this for a week: Wherever you go, wherever you are, use your smart phone, or a simple notepad to jot down ideas as they occur. The mind is a fantastic instrument for coming up with ideas. But it’s a poor storage device! Remember: if you’re not writing your ideas down, you’re not serious.
  1. Host All Things Considered Meetings. Filippo Passerini leads the IT function at Proctor & Gamble, and he and his team figured out a way to save the company a billion dollars a year thru an initiative called Shared Services. I asked Filippo how he came up with the idea. He told me that he and three key colleagues would often get together after working hours and just “chew the fat.” Talk about ideas. Talk about what trends they were seeing. Talk about how to translate the company’s innovation focus into the IT realm. Who do you get stimulated by when you’re just kicking around ideas, without an agenda, or deadlines or pressure?
  1. Identify when and where you do your best thinking. Ask yourself: Where are you when you generate your best ideas? When, where, and at what time of day do you most often do your best thinking? What do you do to get yourself unstuck when facing a vexing problem? How did you inject creativity to handle a task in the last 24 hours? How often do you come up with solutions that others compliment you on as being “creative”? Jot down your responses so that you fully explore these issues. If you take time to think about these questions and their answers, you’ll gain further insight into your own ways of fortifying your idea factory. The next step is to go to that space when you want to do some serious cogitating. If there’s a time of day when you feel you do your most creative thinking, try to reserve it for yourself and use it to its fullest. If there’s a particular spot that says “idea space” to you—your study or the bathtub or an unused conference room—set aside time to use that space, alone and free of noise and distraction. Check out places outside your home, too: a park, a library, the neighborhood Starbucks.

The retailers in Scottsdale are fired up. How about you? If it’s been awhile since you felt the joy of being in Opportunity Mode, take action today. And use this list to spark new approaches. We all need to fortify our Idea Factory now and then.

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