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The Innovation Engine

Six Innovation Secrets Your Boss Never Told You

Intelligence is learning from your own mistakes. Wisdom is learning from the mistakes of others. Here, we offer some hard-earned innovation wisdom.

1. Team building works differently from idea building. Once you have an idea you like, don’t ask a committee to agree that it’s a good idea. If they have not been involved from the beginning, it is too late to involve them now. If you bring them in at this point, everyone will chime in with small changes. The result? The idea dies the death of 1,000 cuts. You now have a dumbed-down idea without the head-jerk impact that the best ideas need.

2. Experts in your industry often know too much. “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” So said Harry Warner, one of the founding Warner Brothers, in 1927, when someone suggested that adding sound to films would make them more appealing. A challenge in turning to industry experts is that their expertise usually stems from years and years of experience. This serves as a great reference to prevent your team members from repeating past industry mistakes but can often keep them from having a dynamic view of what might work in the future. We find it extremely interesting that hundreds of ridiculously successful companies—everything from Amazon (AMZN) to Zipcar (ZIP)—were started by people with no industry experience. One potential explanation? They lacked the expertise that would have limited their ability to imagine possibilities.

3. Create a checklist before you start innovating. Most believe that the fewer rules you have, the more innovative you can be. In truth, the more criteria you must meet, the higher the likelihood of success. The secret: Make sure that the list of criteria comes from the leaders who have to support, fund, and promote the ideas. If they build the criteria, all the ideas that meet them are their ideas, too.

4. Invent when you are most inventive. Professional trainers track the exercise regiments of athletes, charting at what time of day they reach their peak energy and strength. In this way, they identify each athlete’s natural cycle so they can push him or her harder at just the right time. The creative brain has natural cycles, too. Start by tracking when you “think the best.” What time of day? What time of the month? What activities were you taking part in when you had the big idea? Learn to save your toughest challenges for those times when your brain will perform at its pinnacle.

5. Fail Forward. “To swear off making mistakes is very easy; all you have to do is swear off having ideas,” said legendary ad exec Leo Burnett. We agree. Mistakes are a good thing, as long as you learn from them (and they don’t cost too much). You should lead in a way that makes stumbling forward fun, safe, and instructive for the rest of your team.

6. Plan B is often better than Plan A. Of all the best business people we know, entrepreneurs deal with uncertainty most effectively. Any honest entrepreneurs will tell you they have changed directions so many times that their businesses have little in common with the initial business plans.

The point isn’t that business plans—or the annual plan you prepare for your company—are worthless. They make for an excellent way to envision, create strategy, raise funds, and test ideas. Sometimes, however, sticking with the plan is the worst thing to do.

As the world grows more unpredictable, your odds of moving smoothly from A to Z will decrease, creating further situations you simply couldn’t anticipate. The key is to focus on your goal and not on the plan you initially drew up to get there. Your objective doesn’t change. Just accept that how you get there might.

Maddock is chief executive, and Vitón is president, of Maddock Douglas, an innovation consultancy that specializes in inventing and launching new products, services, and businesses. Maddock and Viton are the authors of Free the Idea Monkey (ISB Publishing, 2012), and Maddock is the author of Brand New: Solving the Innovation Paradox—How Great Brands Invent and Launch New Products, Services, and Business Models (Wiley, 2011).

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