Innovation starts with a new idea - myth or fact?

It’s often said, “Innovation starts with a new idea.” We beg to differ. To us, innovation has a breathing rhythm – an inhale and an exhale – and creative ideas are the beginning of the exhale. The question is, where did the air for the exhale come from? What precedes creative ideas?

The inhale is where you gather the raw material for innovative thinking. It starts with knowing your intention and why it’s important – what’s at stake between success and failure. It goes on by knowing the strengths that give you confidence you can succeed, and then a full analysis and prioritization of the factors and issues that must be addressed to fulfill your intention. With all that knowledge and awareness – the inhale – then you’re ready to generate a wide diversity of creative ideas that will shape and define your innovative solution.

This distinction of "innovation having a breathing rhythm" - where it’s important to take a good inhale before the exhale - is often the source of new insights for our clients. For example, one engineer in a technology services firm told us:

One difference I have seen right away is that I definitely need to spend more time on the “inhale” side of the innovation process. I used to start right away without questioning and listening; now I make sure I get more clarification from my clients on specific issues. I see that I could use the innovation process with my clients to design the best way to improve the information flow between us. In the past, I would do proposals without the full “inhale” – giving an estimate without the proper inputs – and end up with the wrong estimation. Now, even when the marketing person wants to finish the proposal quickly, if I think it needs clarification, I get that first.”

I recently attended the Open Innovation 2016 conference hosted by Marcus Evans. Open innovation refers to people collaborating with others outside of their organization to cultivate innovative solutions to various opportunities and challenges. It’s fast becoming a common approach to corporate innovation. One of the speakers was Pam Henderson, co-founder and CEO of NewEdge, Inc. and author of, “You can kill an idea but you can’t kill an opportunity.” Her talk, and the title of her book, underscored an important aspect of the inhale: first identifying key areas of significant opportunity before you start generating ideas.

As she explained in her talk, an opportunity is made up of 3 variables:

  • The need (which manifests as a receptive audience)
  • The capabilities to create value:
  • The conditions that are conducive to bringing them together

And understanding the conditions means understanding the trends and the potential for disruption

When opportunities are clearly identified, there is a tangible focus for generating creative ideas and developing an innovative solution. We called these opportunities “focus areas” when I was head of Innovation Management at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI International) in the mid-1980s. A focus on opportunities is key to completing the inhale portion of the innovation process, and generates a unity of effort when then turning to the exhale: generating ideas, deciding on the best concepts, implementing the innovative solution, and celebrating the resulting achievement and new learning.

As Pam would say, identifying opportunities is an essential step to take before generating ideas. Innovation doesn’t start with an idea. The process of being innovative is bigger than that, and a lot goes into what happens before the creative ideas emerge.

Creative ideas actually start with a big inhale. So the next time you face a challenge that needs an innovative solution, first take a deep breath and look for the opportunity – or opportunities. Then determine your innovative course of action and make it happen!