If you think innovation is only for genius inventors like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, you’re short-selling yourself. Anyone is capable of being innovative, and the concept is much broader than invention, says George E. L. Barbee, author of 63 Innovation Nuggets For Aspiring Innovators.
"The truth is that with increased confidence and direction, each one of us can excel innovatively well beyond what we give ourselves credit for," he says. "It’s well within anyone’s grasp."
From large companies to entrepreneurial startups, Barbee says many of us believe several myths about innovation. Here are six misconceptions that might be holding your company back from having the next great idea:
Large companies can be staid and complacent as a whole or within certain departments, but it doesn’t have to be that way, says Barbee. Anyone can change the culture to one of innovation by banding together the company’s forward thinkers.
"Realize that top executives have to have internal innovation; they can no longer depend on acquisition to grow a company," he says. "Find a way to link to that by looking for two or three people in the middle of the organization who want to break through and do something customer facing."
Meet informally and begin to share and create new ideas. Then approach the CEO, suggests Barbee.
People often believe the only way to innovate is to have breakthrough product ideas, but innovation is much broader, says Barbee. "You can innovate the services or experience around your existing products and differentiate your company," he says.
Innovative thinking is teachable, says Barbee, who suggests that leaders challenge employees to look at situations in other industries and find ways to transfer good ideas.
"Many of us are at a pace where we don’t take time out to observe things around us," he says. "When you see something that works well in another business, ask yourself, ‘Can it be transferred?’ Innovative thinking is like a muscle: once you exercise it, it becomes stronger."
In large companies, the perception is that an earnings requirement is the top-down driving force for innovation, but most of innovation comes from the bottom up.
"It’s the customer-facing leaders who have the most to share," says Barbee. "They’re the people who are finding out where customers are going and what their real needs are. Innovation is meeting the emerging and future needs of customers, not a push to increase revenue by 20%."
Innovative companies release things into the market that are substantially less than perfect, says Barbee, and companies that wait until they get out the bugs will miss the boat.
"To push innovation, you need real users in real environments," he says. "Most every product or service changes in its early stages. The best thinking in the lab is usually not enough to perfect it. Release things that have acceptable quality and minimal downsides, and learn from your customers."
Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The best ideas often come from brainstorming groups that focus on customer needs.
"Innovative companies create a safe environment where you can yourself go and come up with crazy ideas," says Barbee. "Come up with things that could be good, and things that seem absurd. You will start to see a continuum of ideas, and you’ll start to have success."
In fact, once brainstorming groups get going, they can become an attractive part of an organization, says Barbee. "Before you know it, they will transform the culture of your company," he says.
Entrepreneurs are often innovators, but not all innovators are entrepreneurs, says Barbee.
"Startups work on a thin margin, and have to work fast because they can only fail so many times," he says. "A medium- to large-sized company has an advantage when it comes to innovation, because it often has the dollar resources, the clout, and the ability to sustain experiments."