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Innovative thinking

Stephen Shapiro is a Hall of Fame speaker and author of the best-selling book Best Practices Are Stupid. We had a chance to chat with the self-described “innovation instigator” to discuss how companies can foster innovative thinking among their managers and employees.

Why did you decide to leave the corporate world to pursue corporate speaking?

In 1996, I had the opportunity to work closely with Dr. Michael Hammer, the father of Business Reengineering. He was a well-known author and professional speaker. I was inspired by him, his message, and his work. I decided that in 5 years I wanted to be like him: a published author who traveled around the world giving speeches. Right on schedule, in 2001, McGraw-Hill published my first book, 24/7 Innovation. I used this as an opportunity to pursue my dream.

Briefly outline your philosophy about innovation within the context of a company.

The goal of innovation is to stay relevant. The way you do that is to change repeatedly and rapidly in a purposeful way. Most organizations are at Level 1 innovation: “innovation as an event.” This means that it is sporadic and ad hoc. Ideas are the primary driver of innovation. But this is not repeatable and predictable.

  • Level 2 innovation: “innovation as a capability.” Here, specific processes and other structures are put in place to ensure that innovation happens on a regular basis and in an efficient manner.
  • Level 3 innovation: “innovation as a system” is where innovation is part of an organization’s DNA, and you can start undoing some of the structures and processes implemented in Level 2.

How common is it for companies to fail to emphasize the concept of innovation?

Most companies talk a good game. Most say they are committed to innovation. And I really believe that they are. I do not believe that the issue is a failure to emphasize innovation, but rather a flawed understanding of how to implement a successful innovation program. In the name of innovation, companies ask for ideas. But asking for ideas is a bad idea. Companies do not need more ideas. They need better solutions to more important questions.

Why aren’t many of today’s managers and corporate leaders innovative?

Let’s face it: innovation is not a natural act. In fact, the brain is not wired for innovation; it is wired for survival. As a result, our past successes typically lead to future failures. I believe that “expertise is the enemy of innovation.” Our past experiences make it difficult for us to change in the future. I don’t believe that managers/leaders are consciously blocking a company’s innovation efforts. It is happening at a subconscious level.

What types of problems do companies often run into if they aren’t properly innovating?

There are a few common issues I see.

  • Wasting a lot of energy on low-value ideas. I am a strong believer that you should only “innovate where you differentiate.” Not all opportunities are equal. Focus on what matters most.
  • We focus too much on ideas and suggestions. Companies encourage employees to “think outside the box.” Unfortunately, these approaches actually reduce innovation. I believe that you don’t want to think outside the box; you want to find a better box.
  • Companies that embrace failure may be making a mistake. Instead, embrace experimentation. When you disprove a hypothesis in an experiment, that is not a failure; it is a huge success. The reason for many innovation failures is “confirmation bias.” When the brain believes something strongly (such as an idea is good) it will only find evidence that proves its beliefs.

How does management go about creating a culture of innovation?

There are many ways of doing this and it goes beyond what can be included in a brief article. Having said that, I believe there are 4 key steps for creating a culture of innovation. I call this my FAST Innovation model.

  1. Focus. Identify your differentiator and use this to prioritize your innovation investments. Innovate where you differentiate.
  2. Ask. Instead of thinking outside the box, find a better box. Asking different questions will lead to a different range of solutions.
  3. Shift. Expertise is the enemy of innovation, so everyone needs to shift their perspectives to new ways of identifying breakthrough solutions.
  4. Test. Failure has been over-glorified in the world of innovation. Your organization needs strategies to mitigate the risk of failure. Don’t fail – Experiment.

Is it possible to get a company’s current employees and managers to embrace collaboration and innovation?

Anyone can be a better innovator! And it does not require a shift in personnel. It does require a shift in their mindset. The reality is, we are all born creative. In fact, studies show that 98% of 5-year old children are highly creative. But by the time we are 25, only 2% are. So employees do not need to learn to be more innovative. They need to unlearn the bad habits that prevent them from being innovative.

What kind of feedback have you received from managers and corporate leaders who have read your book and/or attended your talks?

People have a lot of aha moments. My speeches are highly interactive and are designed to allow people to learn through experiences rather than just stories and framework. My books are counterintuitive and provide pragmatic approaches you won’t find elsewhere. More importantly, people remember and implement the content. We have a variety of methods for reinforcing my concepts after a speech (e.g., my 30-Day Innovation Challenge) so that people implement what they learn.

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