The 5 Most Important IT Innovation Discovery Skills

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All Subscription Economy IT departments, big and small are increasingly under pressure to ‘innovate or die’. While change is welcomed on paper, it takes a scarier form in server rooms and on account ledgers. Consider the following approaches to encourage and enable your team to innovate:

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Build a culture of IT innovation

Half of the employees polled in an Accenture study said management support for entrepreneurial ideas was very important. But only 20 per cent said their company support it. When given the chance, employees who pursued an idea that reached success were 98 percent likely to pursue another idea.

The author’s of The Innovator’s DNA, Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton Christensen undertook a six-year study, surveying thousands innovative entrepreneurs, executives and individuals who started innovative companies or invented new products. Their research led them to identify five “discovery skills” that distinguished the most creative executives:

  • Discovery skill 1: Associating – Associate seemingly unrelated questions, problems or ideas from different fields. The authors noted that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs frequently observed, “Creativity is connecting things”.
  • Discovery skill 2: Questioning – Constantly ask “Why?”, “Why not?” and “What if?” – questions that both impose and eliminate constraints. Spend a few minutes each day writing down 10 new questions that challenge the status quo of your company or industry. Salesforce.com co-founder Marc Benioff asked why he couldn’t deliver software over the Internet?
  • Discovery skill 3: Observing – Carefully and consistently look for small behavioral details in the activities of customers, suppliers and other companies to gain insights about new ways of doing things. Intuit founder Scott Cook developed the idea for Quicken financial software after observing his wife struggle to keep track of their finances.
  • Discovery skill 4: Experimenting – Attend courses on topics outside your knowledge area, take apart a product or process that interests you and read books about emerging trends. Find ways to conduct frequent, small experiments at all levels of the organization.
  • Discovery skill 5: Networking – Ask the five most creative people you know to share what they do to stimulate creative thinking. See if they’ll describe their innovative ideas and ask for their feedback on yours.

The authors say Apple’s slogan “Think Different” is incomplete. “We found that innovators must consistently act different to think different.”

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Put the culture of innovation to work

How do we put these discovery skills into practice? Dyer and co-author Nathan Furr advanced those insights in their 2014 book, The Innovator’s Method: Bringing the Lean Startup Into your Organization. The process consists of four steps to solve problems of high uncertainty and turn insight into innovation:

  • Step 1. Insight: Savor surprises. Leverage The Innovator’s DNA – questioning, observing, networking and experimenting – to search for insights about problems worth solving.
  • Step 2. Problem: Discover the job-to-be-done. Explore the customers’ need to be sure you’re going after a problem that’s worth solving.
  • Step 3. Solution: Prototype the minimum awesome product. Iterate on each solution to develop a minimum viable prototype and then a minimum awesome product.
  • Step 4. Business model: Validate the go-to-market strategy. Validate the pricing, customer acquisition and cost structure strategies.

Each step is critical and tests leap-of-faith assumptions in a repeated “hypothesis, test, learn” loop, say the authors.

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Avoid pitfalls that may stall results

Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg founded two start-ups, is the co-author of Innovation as Usual and is a partner in the advisory firm The Innovation Architects. He has spent the last eight years studying the practicalities of corporation innovation. He has seen the jobs Innovation manager, Innovation Director and VP of Innovation created and asks one unifying question. How do they manage their own progress?

  1. Track real-world impact but take a year or longer before committing to success metrics.
  2. Avoid managing the perception of creating value, which is very different from creating actual value.
  3. Remain flexible in the beginning and be ready to deviate from your original plan.

“If you’re going to take an innovation job, make sure to buy yourself some time, and then, use that time to make sure you make a difference,” he says.

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