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Innovation Challenges: Nurturing Ideas, Overcoming Hurdles

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Last week I bought a new Cup and Saucer set for our kitchen. When it arrived, my mom unpacked it, had a look at it for a couple of minutes and then packed it back only to keep it locked in the shelf. I frowned and said, “Ma! Why don’t you just use it? Come on, let’s have some coffee”. She stopped me saying, “No, let’s use them when relatives come home”.

Last week I bought a new Cup and Saucer set for our kitchen. When it arrived, my mom unpacked it, had a look at it for a couple of minutes and then packed it back only to keep it locked in the shelf. I frowned and said, “Ma! Why don’t you just use it? Come on, let’s have some coffee”. She stopped me saying, “No, let’s use them when relatives come home”. My mom is fascinated by showing new stuffs to friends rather than use them for herself. This happens in companies too.

Great ideas are proposed, only to sleep in their own couch and never used. There are two reasons for it, which I’ll be discussing in this blog. But before that, let us have a better understanding of what is innovation.

What is Innovation?

I’m not going to quote some Wikipedia definition here. Let’s talk in a more practical sense. Often engineers confuse between invention and innovation. Invention is some new finding that come out as a result of long research. It’s done mostly by researchers or scientists (Data Scientists please forgive me!).  On the other hand, innovation is finding creative ways to use these inventions to solve business problems. That’s the job of an engineer, at least in this context, software engineers.

Researchers are like weapon designers, who spend a lot of time creating awesome weapons and engineers are like warriors who win wars with those weapons. The better the weapons, easier the winning. Alright, enough of wars. I’ll give a more constructive example, which I have given in my previous article. Let’s take transaction records as an example.

Thousands of years ago clay tablets were used for recording transactions between people. Then, a few hundred years back papers were used, then digital files, databases and recently Blockchain. Historically, the means of solving a problem gets better and innovative as new technologies are invented!

Further, creative thinking is not something that is possible only for the extraordinary. It’s in every one of us, as proved by experts like Robert Greene and Kelly brothers. Greene says creativity is connecting your knowledge and experience with the childlike mental fluidity. Like any other skill, it can be cultivated by practice.

Alright, having understood innovation, here are the two important reasons for an innovative idea to become successful or a failure.

Reason 1: Conducive Environments

Innovation is no more desirable but is becoming essential for any organization. People are the greatest assets and it’s important that companies make use of them effectively, by setting up a conducive environment for them to think creatively. Innovations happen where people can freely think, have the trust that they will be taken seriously, and can get the rightful recognition for their contributions. This has to be enabled systematically.

If there is too much pressure on the day-to-day work or making mistakes are frowned upon, there will not be any incentive for bringing something new. If the proposals are not taken seriously and innovation culture is just symbolic, people will lose their enthusiasm quickly and give up. So, an environment of transparency, trust and encouragement should be weaved in the culture for innovations to thrive.

That being said, Ideas evolve! An idea matures when it’s discussed with people with the right mind-set. Collaboration between teams and with customers is vital in the journey from ideation to implementation of an idea. How often do we trust the team sitting next to us? I have seen in companies where reusable components or ideas are contributed to a central repository, where they get piled up without being used. Developers are seen more comfortable with a framework or library developed by a group of unknown third parties than with something developed within the company by their colleagues.

Indeed, the in-house developed component would probably be built with better context, having the customers in mind. Had both the teams collaborated, a better solution would have been delivered to the customers efficiently. In this case, there is lack of trust and this hampers reusability and efficiency for an organization. It can be addressed by establishing trust and confidence in capabilities among teams.

Reason 2: You and Me

Best artists bring out creative drawings, best directors make creative movies, best stand-up comedians write creative jokes and best engineers provide creative solutions. There is in fact, nothing called “best” engineer. There is no scale to measure. No standard to evaluate. Being best is a continuous process.

When you propose an idea or a solution to a problem, do you ask yourself if you are solving the right problem? Did you even identify the right problem in the first place, by empathizing with the customers? Do you ask the right questions for identifying the right problem? What happens is, either we solve the wrong problem or fit a wrong solution to the right problem. We solve the wrong problem because we didn’t ask the right questions.

It’s like producing a product, which no one is going to buy. We fit a wrong solution because, in most cases we are tempted towards trying a new technology in the market, such as Machine Learning or Blockchain without taking enough time to think through the use case at hand. When ideas are rejected, people get emotional.

It is imperative to objectively assess the reason and improve upon the learnings, ask the right questions and iterate until we identify the right problem and then head towards solving it. There is no shortage of problems to solve and so there is no need of rush. Gartner says 50% of analytics projects fail. Why? Is it because of lack of skills? Not at all. Come on! Our developers are smart with algorithms. Then, what else? Think about it! Customer satisfaction requires something more than just technology!

Karthikeyan Alagarswamy

Karthikeyan Alagarswamy

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