How to be innovative?

Everyone is talking about innovation. Practically every company today mentions innovation in its mission. But what exactly does innovation mean? And how exactly does a company manage to be innovative?

What is innovation?

Innovation must not be confused with an invention. While an invention, meaning a novel product, service, or process, surely is a great achievement, innovation is something more. A new technology might be interesting from a scientific or engineering standpoint, but it is no innovation if there is no need for it. Therefore, innovation must not only consist of an invention, but it must also cover a demand or solve an important problem to enable economic success. But, as many great things, innovation often starts with a “simple” idea.

“Every once in a while, a new technology, an old problem, and a big idea turn into an innovation.” - Dean Kamen

Notably, there are different degrees of innovation. Whereas nearly everyone mentions disruptive technologies like the first smartphone when asked about innovation examples, also smaller, incremental improvements of a product or service can be innovative if they fulfill an important need.

How to be innovative?

In a company, five levers are necessary for continuous implementation of innovation to strengthen its competitive capacity: an innovation strategy, innovation processes, structures, instruments, and an innovation culture.

innovation process

With an innovation strategy, a company commits to a coherent set of behaviors, objectives, and priorities to achieve a common goal. The strategy ensures that all efforts are aligned and focused correctly.

Once the innovation strategy is in place, the resulting innovation processes can be defined. The goal of an innovation process is to steer all activities related to innovation so that ideas are regularly generated, evaluated, and developed into innovations. There are many types of innovation processes, for example, the stage-gate process or design thinking. There is no right or wrong process per se, in the end, it must fit the company, their products, and their strategy.

From these processes, the innovation structures are derived. These comprise the parts of the organizational structure within which innovation activities are organized. These are, for example, the composition of the teams involved in the innovation process or the responsibilities of individuals in the process, such as the role of an innovation manager.

Innovation instruments comprise all the methods that can be applied to generate ideas for innovations. There are thousands of methodologies that promise to boost creativity and improve the quantity and quality of generated ideas. It never hurts to try out some of these methods in a moderated workshop to see what works best for the specific topic, company, and people.   

“For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate.” - Margaret Heffernan

Speaking of people, the fifth and arguably most important lever is the innovation culture of a company. Even the best strategy, effective processes, engaging workshops, and optimized structures will not bring success if the employees are not on board. A successful innovation culture includes transparent communication, a good error culture, opportunities for employees to broaden their horizons, and the possibility for every employee to submit and discuss their ideas. An appreciation of people and their ideas will lead to motivated employees and valuable contributions to the innovation process and thus to the company’s success.


Further reading (in English / German):

K. Gaubinger, M. Rabl, S. Swan, & T. Werani (2015). Innovation and Product Management. A Holistic and Practical Approach to Uncertainty Reduction

Augsten, T., Brodbeck, H., & Birkenmeier, B. (2017). Strategie und Innovation. Die entscheidenden Stellschrauben im Unternehmen wirksam nutzen

Written by

Dr. Franziska Wandrey