Innovation is not a Creative Process


My career has been anything but a straight line. That said I would not consider it to be from a lack of direction but instead curiosity. My undergraduate education is based in information systems with graduate work in the area of business/finance. I have worked for IT companies, Telecommunications, Retail as well as Healthcare. Areas or fields that I have held positions in are equally diverse such as Engineering, Program Management, Account Management, Planning and Supply Chain. It has always intrigued me to see distinct patterns emerge when working in each of these roles and with great teams. More importantly, it is amazing how often existing solutions from seemingly unrelated industries or disciplines are reapplied (referred to later in this article as “intersections).

“Innovation” can be defined as a “new idea, device or method”.  It is the concept of something “new” that stands out to me. The reason is that in the purest sense, I’m not sure how many ideas are truly “new”. For someone who considers themselves as an innovator, this may be a problem. Not for me. Why? Maybe innovation is less of a creative process than it is a discovery process. In other words, it is likely that someone somewhere has experienced and solved the problem and it is really up to us to discover it.

My favorite “Innovation” book is called “the Medici Effect”, written by Frans Johansson. My favorite quote from the book is “what if an idea is old to the creator but new to others”. I ask you, “Isn’t this how most innovation really occurs?” I picked out a few of the most impactful statements by Mr. Johansson:

  • The most successful innovators produce an incredible number of ideas.
  • Innovators are often self-taught. They tend to educate themselves intensely.
  • How do you get this type of interaction to work? Learn their agenda.
  • Occupation diversification is a common way of finding intersections.
  • I’m not talking about world-leading knowledge, but enough to call it a core competency.

There is a common misperception that I would like to clarify and that is “the number of ideas” required to innovate. Personally, I think this is a point of misunderstood statistics and do not think innovation to be a numbers game. How many have heard the common quote that “it takes 6,000 ideas to eventually lead to one successful product”. I seriously question this. In my mind, if this is true, 5,999 of the ideas simply weren’t any good. This line of thinking would lead a different question, “How we can generate more good ideas?” It is my experience that good ideas generally share two common traits. First, clear alignment to the needs of customers and stakeholders is critical (is there value in solving the problem?). Secondly, ideas need to be actionable. In fact, the best ideas are often insultingly simple. How many times have you, a friend or colleague said, “Now, why didn’t I think of that?”

The first time I experienced innovation at work was while working in the telecommunications industry. More than 25 years ago, I was working with a team to develop what was one of the largest billing systems in the country. At that time computer power and storage was very limited and expensive compared to today. In fact, our system was designed to run in seven separate data centers (not servers) in parallel. One major problem we had to solve was how to electronically store all of the customer bills (this would be several hundred million bills each month). We worked with hardware engineers who were challenged to figure it out. At that time, our client wanted to store 18 months of billing history online so that they could best support their customers’ needs. It wasn’t until we brought the hardware engineers together with the application developers and bill printing specialists that we were able to solve the problem.

The hardware engineers complained that the data would not compress. They went on to explain that their algorithms would suppress any immediately redundant characters and provided an example of a bill as to demonstrate their challenge. It was then that the bill print specialists simply turned the bill sideways and stated that they were looking at the data from only one angle. To which the hardware engineers laughed until the software engineers stated, we can do that (as they repositioned data all the time in order to efficiently print bills). As a result, the “team” was able to get 10X capability out the compression routines and thus solved the problem.

I chose this example because to this day it stands as an example to me of how a different perspective (literally and figuratively) can produce great ideas. In fact, in this case, a whole order of magnitude improvement was achieved.

One of the reasons I like heading towards intersections is because there are not only more ideas but in most cases, they are good ideas (they have already been proven to work, just for a different purpose). Let me give you an extreme example. I have recently been introduced to the field of biomimicry. This new field focuses on nature-inspired solutions. In fact, believe it or not, there is now a Biomimicry Institute. If you go out to their website they go on to state the following:

“You can look at nature as being a catalog of products, and all of those, have benefitted from a 3B year R&D period”.

I’m not going to debate various viewpoints as to how old the earth is or its’ creatures, as that is not the point. The point is that nature has already solved a lot of problems. Steve Jobs was quoted in his later years of saying, “I think the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be the intersection of Biology and Technology”. Likely he too was onto the power of intersections. Maybe he was not as creative as he was curious. Curious people do what? They explore and discover.

So if innovation is possible for anyone that is truly “curious”, what holds them back? My opinion is that most people are wired to question and control. The main reason is “fear” as opposed to “curiosity”. I once listened to a speaker by the name of Mike Rayburn who suggested a very simple way of dealing with this. Ask the following two questions:

  1. What-if?
  2. Why not?

My next example emphasizes this very point and what brought me to healthcare (my experience in retail). One thing retailers do better than anyone is to establish and master massive supply chains. Just think of how many stores they have, how many products they sell, how many customers visit and how little space they have. Now think of healthcare where most of the therapy involves medicines, devices or equipment. In fact for a hospital, supply chain expense makes up at least 25% of the cost and it is growing faster than any other expense.

Our Chief Supply Chain Officer was convinced that the solutions lied outside of healthcare and had made up his mind that he needed a new perspective; a retail perspective. So he formed a diverse team (including retail and healthcare backgrounds) and asked them to figure out how we could implement the same type of systems and processes as the larger well-known retailers. As a result, we have implemented automated procurement, point of use, just in time and category management among other features that are the cornerstones to a massive retail supply chain (in healthcare).

In fact, our clinical areas are now equipped with storage shelves that are actually high precision scales. When they take something off the shelf the system knows exactly how much is left, and just like when you check out at Walgreens the system determines if it is time to replenish. Few worry about restocking the shelf or looking through a catalog to determine what to order. Instead, the system figures it out and frees our clinicians to focus on our patients. Our Supply Chain has been extremely successful but it wasn’t easy. All sorts of questions were raised. Questions like “how would you like to be on the table of the operating room knowing supplies are to arrive just-in-time” but we just kept asking “what-if” and “why not”.

This brings me to my final point, diversity. Harvard Business Review, Boston Consulting, Forbes and Fast Company are among many that have come to the conclusion (as well as published) that diversity and innovation go hand in hand. What I think is interesting, when you really dig into their studies, is the importance of both inherent and acquired diversity. Inherit diversity is the type of diversity that you are born with, but acquired diversity is that which you have obtained through experience. Boston Consulting reported that diverse industry backgrounds and career paths are just as impactful as national origin and gender. Why is this?

I would argue “intersections”. People with different backgrounds and experiences often see the same problem in different ways (mainly because of their exposure to similar problems) and come up with different solutions. This significantly increases the odds that one of those solutions will be a hit. They (BCG) also go on to report that culture is critical in ensuring the organization is open to new ideas. They list fair employment practices, participative leadership and open and frequent communication as critical traits. Lastly, they conclude that digitization provides a kind of “rocket fuel” for diverse and innovative teams. In other words, companies that invest in digital have a distinct advantage.

This brings me to my last example. A “Big Data” project. The concept was to create a data registry and then to apply analytics to the data so that we could alleviate the burden of looking through medical records and empower the care team with unbiased data. Additionally, it was thought that we could share this information with patients so they knew how the care team was drawing their conclusions and could include them in the treatment plan. All sounds good, right?

The clinical team went to work collecting over 150 elements for the registry. They were quite successful in fact. However, they were stuck. The data was not really telling them anything useful and they were about to give up. It was about this time when someone familiar with our analytics team suggested engaging us in to see if we could help. Our analytics team (who knew nothing about this particular disease) was more than happy to assist. However, once we outlined our approach the physicians were skeptical. The reason is that they expected to simply hand over the data and for us to see what we could make of it. They questioned, “What do you mean by analytics is not about the data?”

That is right. Complex analytics is more often not about the data, but instead the questions. When we stopped focusing on collecting data and instead focused on what data was truly needed to answer the most critical questions, we solved the problem. We ended up with around 15 pieces of data that were actually needed (as opposed to 150). Not surprising, the most impactful data was not included in the original 150 elements that made up the registry (they were missing). Needless to say, this basic pivot proved to be instrumental and we now have a product that has been successful and moving forward. I chose this example because it really reinforces the topics covered earlier but more importantly it points out the need for diverse teams. No single party on the team could have come up with the solution but together results were possible. Inherent and acquired diversity is a critical element of innovative teams.

In conclusion, my goal was to provide you with some insights and hopefully inspire you to ask questions but hopefully with a different purpose. Innovation is not as much about creativity as it is curiosity and discovery. Ask “what-if” or “why not”. Additionally, innovation is not about the quantity of ideas but instead the quality of ideas. And finally, innovation is most likely to occur when diverse teams come together, work openly and focus on specific problems that truly need to be solved. I would encourage you to be willing to waste a little more time because you are curious, to embrace digital as rocket fuel for innovation, and seek out relationships with people who are not like you.

One last quote by the author Logan Wolfram:

“Sure, there are still good things along the way, but the hallmark of our faith cannot be more about managed survival than hope. We cannot be content with status quo, but instead that of limitless possibility”. 

Curiosity, exploration and discovery trumps fear every time and just about anything is possible.

Key References

  • Harvard Business School Publishing (October 2006). Medici Effect: What You can Learn from Elephants and Epidemics. Frans Johansson.
  • Biomimicry Institute (December 2018). What is Biomimicry
  • Boston Consulting Group. How Diverse Leadership Teams Boost Innovation.