A scientific approach to innovation

20th July 2016

How do we really drive innovation in business?




When most of us think of innovation, we think of a lone genius such as Elon Musk dreaming up disruptive ideas destined to change the world. The reality, however, is somewhat more prosaic. While lone geniuses have changed the world, innovation, especially in the early decades of the 21st century, is more likely to be a team effort.

While it’s tempting to think of innovation as something that’s somehow organic and just springs into the world from someone’s consciousness, Dr Amantha Imber, a Melbourne innovation psychologist and founder of Inventium, spends much of her time reading scientific journals to get a deeper understanding of what spurs on innovation.

Spanning fields such as psychology, cognitive science, neuropsychology and management science, she looks at research that demonstrates effective methods to get increased innovation output as a result.

Defining the structure and strategy

Possibly the most important insight that Dr Imber has gleaned from this research is that for organisations, innovation can’t be left to chance; it needs to be a process with a defined structure and strategy. She says that while it may sound like a motherhood statement, the first priority of organisations wanting to innovate is to have an innovation strategy.

“By that I mean a clear point of view on where they want to focus their innovation efforts. One of the key considerations is making sure their areas of focus are not just about incremental innovation in the core business. They need to be making sure there is a focus on more disruptive or breakthrough opportunities they can pursue.”

The second thing organisations need to have is a clear process for innovation. So, consider “what are the key stages we need to go through for an innovation to be successful”, Dr Imber says. It’s also vital to answer the question, “if someone in the company has a great idea, what do they do with that idea?”.

However, some organisations can be indifferent, if not downright hostile, to innovation. So don’t rock the boat, says Dr Imber. Organisations need a process that sits outside the normal hierarchy of the organisation. The process makes really clear the ‘what’ and ‘how’ for people to engage with innovation in the organisation.

While it’s vital to have a strategy to embrace innovation and a process for bringing a potential innovation to management, Dr Imber also argues for the creation of innovation capability within organisations. Flying in the face of lone genius nostrums of innovation, she believes that “innovators are made as opposed to born”. So, what that means for organisations is that they need to invest time and money in training their people in how to be better innovators, she says.

Culture is vital

Organisations need to look at their culture and deliberately build a culture where innovation thrives. Dr Imber goes into the process in some depth in her book, The Innovation Formula, but among the elements required to build such a culture is the need for managers to ‘walk the talk’.

“A lot of research around innovation culture has found that within organisations with lots of layers, managers and particularly top management, need to really walk the talk. They need to talk about innovation and why it’s important and actually demonstrate that through their behaviours and engage directly in innovation.”

The worst thing that can happen is when staff members hear senior leaders, or the CEO of the company, talking a lot about innovation but not actually following through with action, explains Dr Imber.

Fighting decision fatigue

Other techniques that Inventium has come up with for fostering innovation in business include down-to-earth, coalface methods such as changing the way brainstorming sessions are conducted and different ways of looking at a challenge. Dr Imber says that after Inventium had come across some research on ‘decision fatigue’, it became apparent that the way idea generation workshops are usually held wouldn’t produce an optimal result.

Decision fatigue comes out of the concept that our ability to make decisions, or our willpower, is a finite resource. Some people have more than others and we can build this ability up over time but, nonetheless, it’s a finite resource. If we make a decision after we’ve exhausted that resource, we’re unlikely to make good ones.

“We found that how most organisations run idea generation workshops is they’ll take a full day out of the office, spend all morning generating ideas and then in the afternoon, they’ll start to make decisions. That’s not utilising how the brain works most effectively, so we rethink innovation workshops by breaking them into two half days – one morning where we’re generating ideas and then come back together the next morning, and that’s when we make decisions.”

Crushing assumptions

Inventium has also developed a tool called ‘The Assumption Crusher’. Dr Imber explains: “You think of all the assumptions you hold in relation to this problem you are trying to solve. Assumptions stem from your thinking and can be real or perceived. For example, one common assumption is our budget is X dollars to solve this problem. So what you want to do once you’ve identified those assumptions is deliberately crush them.”

One way to crush an assumption is by asking what if the opposite was true. For example, the assumption might be there’s an available budget of $50,000 to solve a problem. But what if there was only $5 to solve the problem – what could that look like? Or, what if there was $5 million to solve it – what could that look like?

Just by crushing those assumptions, it really shifts your point of view immensely and really opens up a whole range of solutions that were not available to your brain because your brain can’t help but make assumptions, says Dr Imber.

18 months to an innovative organisation

While learning The Assumption Crusher technique may only take five minutes, Inventium typically works with companies for a much longer period of time. “To change things at a systems level cutting across a whole organisation, you want to allow a good six to 12 months,” says Dr Imber, pointing to client Mirvac, which her team worked with the property developer intensively for 18 months.

“They approached us to really help them transform how the company approached innovation. They were at the time quite reactive and they didn’t have a clear innovation strategy. And over the course of 18 months, we helped them build an innovation program they called Mirvac Hatch.

Dr Imber and her team helped Mirvac set a clear innovation strategy for where they were going to be focusing their innovation efforts. They then built an organisation wide innovation process and about 40 innovation champions were trained, who essentially are the mentors, coaches and facilitators of innovation to the several thousand employees who work across Mirvac.

The result proved that taking a systematic, scientific approach to innovation could pay off beyond an organisations’ wildest expectations. The company debuted at number three on the Australian Financial Review (formerly BRW) 50 Most Innovative Companies list for 2015 and was awarded the Best Innovation Program. There’s a science behind everything, and when it comes to innovation, it may just be the missing key to you business’s success.
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