February 2003

Practicing Innovation

CIDMIconNewsletter Gretchen Marks, Consultant, Comtech Services, Inc.

In “The Discipline of Innovation” in the August 2002 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Peter Drucker describes the sources of innovation inside and outside the corporation. Successful entrepreneurs are committed to the systematic practice of innovation because innovation creates wealth. Innovation is the critical element in “the effort to create purposeful, focused change in an enterprise’s economic or social potential.”

Where does innovation come from? Successful innovation results from a deliberate search for opportunities. Drucker argues that four sources of innovation are available within a company:

  • unexpected occurrences
  • incongruities
  • process needs
  • industry and market changes

Unexpected occurrences are the simplest sources of innovation. An unexpected success may help a company recognize an opportunity. For example, a writer on your staff may create an introductory guide that is a hit with sales people and customers. An astute manager jumps on the opportunity to create more introductory guides. In the same way, an unexpected failure, such as an online help system that no one uses, leads staff and managers to discover that small help pamphlets are what the customer really prefers.

Incongruities in a process may lead to innovations. One team discovered that they were repeating the same quality checks at three or four stages in the process. By recognizing the incongruity, they were able to introduce an innovative quality assurance process that saved the company money. Identifying awkward processes, addressing economic realities, or finding breaks between expectations and results can all lead observant teams to innovative practices.

The need to use unusual processes to achieve an end may also lead to innovations. For example, a publications department finds it difficult to transmit XML-coded files to their translation vendor. To make the process work, they develop a system to strip the codes from the text and re-insert them after the translated files are returned. The process innovation then becomes a sellable product.

Industry and market changes create tremendous opportunity for innovation. According to Drucker, “When market or industry structured change, traditional industry leaders again and again neglect the fastest growing market segments.” Innovators, working outside of tradition, find fast ways to respond. In technical communication, innovations in delivery methods have led to Web sites used effectively to deliver up-to-date information.

Drucker finds three additional sources of innovative behavior that influence a company from the outside:

  • demographic changes in the population
  • changes in perception
  • new knowledge

Changes in the population have led savvy innovators to effective changes. As the population in the US ages, organizations are taking advantage of opportunities to market products to older customers. The shift to the Web by senior citizens adds interest to Web sites devoted to genealogy and health care. The demographics of specific populations, like the addition of more non-English speaking engineers, affect our decisions on whether to write plain language documents for technical audiences.

More people now view the computer as a necessity in the workplace and even in the home. The changing perception of a technical tool has allowed us to introduce many new products that rely upon rapid access to information.

New knowledge is a source of history-making innovations. Innovators teach us how to communicate using online technology, developing help systems and Web sites to make information more accessible. Innovations in content management are spurring organizations to rethink their information structures so that modules of information are more readily reused. New understanding of user needs may lead us to find ways of communicating that have never been possible-but new knowledge requires a long lead time before it is ready for the marketplace.

Innovations arise when individuals are willing to make an effort-initiating an idea and following through with it. Innovators, supported by corporate managers, need to understand what it takes to make an innovation successful. Key to a successful innovation is a user need. A need prompts us to develop a solution, one simple enough to win the hearts and minds of our customers quickly.

Innovations should also start small. Starting too big allows too much room for failure and disappointment. At heart, innovation requires work rather than genius. As Drucker states, “When all is said and done, innovation requires hard, focused, purposeful work.” CIDMIconNewsletter