What is innovation after all?!

Innovation might be the hardest word to define from the entire business lexicon. Often innovation has its roots in the world of design, engineering, psychology, among other disciplines, thus serving “many masters” and making it hard to find it’s unique place in business. And as if its transdisciplinary origin wasn’t confusing enough, “innovation” is often misused in communication and marketing stunts, promoting the idea that innovation is only about results, such as a fantastic new product, and never the journey or the capabilities needed to get there. This builds biased references for the organization and deepens the misrepresentation of what innovation is. In this context of high-noise/low-signal, it is very hard for organizations to develop innovation capabilities: if we don’t know what we are doing, how can we know whether we are doing it right?

To drive success in business, innovation needs to be seen as a process, rather than a result. The process of systematically creating the right conditions for innovation to take place, a process that if done right will lead to consistent results. For example, an organization might be successful at creating one or two innovations e.g., designing innovative products, but not be good at practicing innovation management e.g., consistently innovating throughout the organization. This is the often confusing difference between we made an innovation vis à vis we are innovative. In other words, innovation requires the management of systematic and consistent development of dynamic capabilities, not a new “we-got-lucky” product being launched at random.

I have seen repeatedly, in my years of work experience, that even the most well-intended innovation efforts will fall short if not embedded in a systematic practice. Innovation is not a box that you check every year in the annual shareholders meeting or in the salary review with every employee. Innovation is a practice that needs to be present, day in day out, in all activities of the organization.

And although so many organizations understand the need to innovate, exactly because the concept is so vast and has grown to involve so many activities e.g., open innovation, design thinking, lean startup, business model innovation, among many others, most organizations feel quite lost when it comes to where to start and how to do systematic management of innovation.

iso standards

The ISO for Innovation Management

This is where the beauty of the 56000 ISO family lies, the ISO for Innovation Management. Organizations do not need to go and reinvent the wheel every time they realize their innovation efforts are not being implemented correctly and are not paying off as they should (happens more often than not, believe me!). The 56000 ISO is a guidance standard, meaning that does not require a hard make-it or break-it certification but it is rather a set of best practices that organizations can adapt to.

Being an expert in the working group that is developing the international ISO Standard, I am asked a lot, by clients and friends: “And ISO for innovation? Isn’t that incongruent?” — I get surprised every time by this question! — I don’t think it is incongruent at all! Innovation management is about setting the stage for innovation to take place. You cannot put a gun to someone’s temple and force them to be innovative or creative, but you can definitely create the right context for innovation to flourish. And this requires innovation management capabilities. Maybe it’s because of my background in Fine Arts and Design that I have a somewhat less of a romanticized idea about what are the processes for creativity and innovation. The brilliant genius that has an amazing idea coming out of nowhere is a myth, like it says in that quote sometimes attributed to Thomas Edison: “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration” (or even Picasso’s “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”). Innovation management is the hard work behind building the organization’s readiness for inspiration.

I have the secret hope that this will be an empowering moment for many organizations that have been struggling with systematizing their innovation investments.

Many of the clients from my own company as well as executives from the Stockholm School of Economics MBA, where I teach, ask me how to manage innovation and where to start. I have been telling them to apply the ISO and get it right from the beginning. This is how you do it:

ISO 56004 Innovation Management Assessment (IMA)

I thought it was brilliant that one of the first ISOs to be published was the one for innovation assessment. This because one of the most common mistakes I see in organizations is to start some innovation activity, in some department or business unit, without really having had any kind of metric or overview of what needs to be done and “what success looks like?”. It’s like going trekking without a path, map or compass. You might actually find your way (if you are lucky!) but you will feel lost most of the time!
The IMA is very flexible, you can assess specific parts of the organization, locations, etc. and it will give you a cartographic map of where you are. Add a good innovation strategy and you have a map of where you want to go.

ISO 56003 Tools and Methods for Innovation Partnership

Most organizations need to understand that they, alone, cannot control the final customer experience, as more and more innovations will take place across multiple actors in an ecosystem. The reason for this is that an experience takes place in several dimensions and each dimension can have one or several suppliers. For example, imagine you are a firm providing medical devices. The final user experience of your product will be influenced by: the patient’s visit to the health care provider, the interaction with the health care services, the buying experience at the pharmacy, the payment terms by the credit provider, the usage of the device at the home provided by the real-estate firm, and I could go on!… And this interdependence is only becoming increasingly relevant in the context of digital platforms, where different suppliers come together to collaborate on the delivery of the digital experience.
Organizations need to become fast at building, not only internal innovation capabilities, but also external innovation management, as success will be determined by the strength of a whole ecosystem. In this context, the ISO for Innovation Partnerships is another great tool to get it right, from the start!

Moving forward: Innovation Management system and Innovation culture

Moving forward, you will also need a system to manage innovation built in a strong culture. The ISO 56002 Innovation Management system will be published very soon, but there won’t be any ISO for the right culture you need to set in place. This might be the trickiest aspect of innovation in business. My key advice is consistency. It is not possible to build a culture if there isn’t consistency from every part of the organization, especially management. If an organization does not have a clear idea of the kind of culture they want and does not work actively to build it, it will still build some kind of culture, just likely not a positive one. And all the marketing campaigns in the world will not save you because your employees and partners will see right through it. So if you want to build an innovative organization, make that decision and be serious about it. Consistently. Systematically.