Innovation All the Time

That's the daily order of business in the creative professions. Here's how to apply their practices to your own company

When was the last time you felt engaged with your work and your colleagues—like you were really making something new happen? I'm not talking about sending a PowerPoint deck around for feedback or soliciting ideas from everyone on an important initiative. I'm talking about really working on something together, giving shape to an idea, and spending time actually building it. It doesn't happen that often, and when it does, it usually happens "off the radar." Our current work-a-day world can be summed up in an easy to remember acronym: EEEMP.

Say it, "EEEMP!" Sounds a bit odd, doesn't it? It stands for "E-mail, E-mail, E-mail, Meetings & Presentations." It's odd that we allow ourselves to be enslaved to this way of working. The good news is that there's an alternative that's far more productive and rewarding.

Organizations in the so-called creative industries, such as fashion and entertainment, are the leaders in this way of working. At businesses such as Nike (NKE), Electronic Arts (EA), and my personal favorite, Pixar, innovation is a natural and everyday by-product of the way that people work through making and shaping ideas. Designers, artists, and engineers are constantly making and refining possible solutions through sketches, prototypes, and simulations.


  Businesses in more "serious" industries, in contrast, pour significant resources into the study and analysis of innovation opportunities. Research reports, e-mails, and meetings to discuss opportunities take precedence over the creation of new, innovative content. Working on the actual idea—making sketches or prototypes—is seen as having already committed to a final direction.

Perhaps worse is the common practice of outsourcing any and all creative work because it's thought to be merely a production step. When companies do this, they forfeit the important dimensions of authorship and innovation that occur when people explore the concept tangibly and not just analytically. Without the chance to explore and evaluate the preliminary embodiment of ideas, the organization will struggle to identify good ideas to pursue—and fail to shape those ideas once they commit to them.

Yet long-standing, deeply held beliefs keep people working in their cubes, running to meetings, and otherwise zipping around while achieving little real progress. Our educational system has failed to balance the value of the intellectual with the tangible. "Thinking strategically" is automatically seen as more valuable than the shaping of an actual product.


  I'm not arguing that designers should run the company, but I am suggesting that strategy making, market research, and product management teams use graphic and product design to explore and communicate concepts during the normal course of their work. Attempts to convey strategy become far more powerful when you can show what the company would be doing, making, and communicating if the strategy were successfully implemented. This doesn't require extensive production design of the actual environments, branding campaigns, and products. Instead, you can rely on models, simulations, and visualizations. It's fun, exciting, and more informative than a deck.

The reasons why it pays to get better at innovation are clear. Successful new products and services drive a disproportionate share of growth. Witness everything from Motorola's (MOT) RAZR to Whole Foods (WFMI) grocery stores to eBay's (EBAY) online community auctions to each and every one of Pixar's animated features.

Together, this handful of new products and services is worth tens of billions of dollars in market value. The surprising thing is how little insight companies have about the simple reasons these innovations were so successful. They also fail to realize how these innovations were shaped by the companies over time. Without this insight, organizations continue to try and analyze their way to success.


 To become orders of magnitude better at bringing successful new products and services to market, businesses have to start working more like Pixar and less like McKinsey. Here are five ways to get started:

1. Take a Fresh Look.

Figure out what the unique character of your new product or service could be by really experiencing the market and seeing it with new eyes. Even though they all "knew" how fish swim and had seen it throughout their lives, Pixar creatives intently observed the movement of fish, the behavior of marine animals, and details of underwater terrains while planning Finding Nemo.

This inspection of everyday aquatic life was necessary to capture the essence of Nemo's story and to bring it to life. Likewise, if you think you know what the market wants based on multiple-choice surveys and feedback from salespeople, you're missing a feel for the street that can feed a new, innovative perspective on it.

2. Cast a New Role.

Establish a creative director role in addition to a project manager. Filmmaking always pairs a director with a producer—and each has a strong role to play. The director is responsible for the emotive quality of the film, the producer for the timetable, budget, and resources.

A creative director is great at assessing whether the work the organization is doing is remarkable and of high quality. Jeff Hawkins, who invented and shaped the first Palm (PALM) Pilot is a creative director. The director and producer constantly debate and negotiate what's desirable with what's feasible. Most organizations make no distinction between these roles, and as a result deliver banal quality on time, or never finish because the ideal couldn't be achieved.

3. Dive Into the Talent Pool.

Use the full range of talent in your organization. Companies are notorious for turning great people into office drones and harried executives. Pixar relies on more than 15 different kinds of artists and technical professionals to achieve success. Even though their process is iterative and organic, there's a strong organizational design, and everyone on the team contributes creatively to the project from their own expertise.

In your efforts aimed at innovation, involve people from each of your operational areas and get them engaged in the challenges of the problem. More heads (and hands) are better than one.

4. Go Lo-Fi.

Pixar doesn't work a day without drawing, modeling, sculpting, coding, or making other representations of the scenes in the film. Storylines, characters, and environments are all created in simple ways so they can be experienced and better evaluated in terms of whether they deliver value and build on the quality of the film.

The same can be done in our own organizations without resorting to full engineering or production prototypes. Use foam core and a color printer to simulate a new medical device. Get one of your young Flash whizzes to mock up an idea for an easy-to-use interface. Hack an existing product into something new. Rent a warehouse and build a new show floor from 2x4's, IKEA lights, and fabric.

5. Talk the Talk.

Foster a culture of productive give and take. If we've lost anything in modern business, it's the ability to engage in a productive critique of work as it's being shaped. People are so concerned about looking smart or being right that we've lost an ability to explore possibilities together.

For any given film production, "dailies" subject the prior day's creative work to intense review and criticism. It isn't a review to see whether the artists were right or wrong but a critique to see what can be done to make a scene even better. Imagine the quality of your product or service being shaped on a daily or weekly basis throughout its conception and development cycle. This kind of critique pushes everyone beyond their current talents to innovative achievements. It isn't a cakewalk, but it delivers unquestionable value in the end.

If you're pursuing initiatives aimed at innovation in your own company, you can't afford to ignore these principles and behaviors. Implementing them won't be easy and will require changes in attitude up and down the organization. But these ways of working are a whole lot more rewarding and productive for the company than the alternative—EEEMP!

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.