Innovation and Product Development

4 Harmful Innovation Myths

Busted innovative idea, shown as a shattered lightbulb.

Creating a culture of innovation is a fragile effort. It needs to be nurtured and encouraged. If your work culture doesn’t allow for creativity, your organization’s big ideas might pop like a broken lightbulb!

In the world of digital marketing and consumer experience, things change so quickly that you can’t let your ideas be shattered. You could get trampled by your competitors who avoided the following four harmful innovation myths.

Myth #1 – Innovation is a Lightning Strike

In 1752, it is said that Ben Franklin flew his infamous kite in a thunderstorm. The story turned the lightning bolt into an analogy for innovation. We’ve since seen countless portrayals of fictional eureka moments followed by a flurry of energized passion – as if that sudden spark is the process of innovation.

Fortunately, or sadly, this isn’t often the reality.

Thomas Edison was a prolific inventor, who is credited with the first commercially viable lightbulb in 1879. According to the Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park, it took trial and error to succeed. Edison himself is quoted as saying, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” What a testament to the reality of innovation! Another relevant quote attributed to Edison is, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

What does this look like for today’s digital organizations? Make sure that your teams understand reality. With so much information at our fingertips, we expect immediate answers, but creativity still takes time and effort. The team must have a goal and push for it – it looks a lot like work!

One of my past clients in the relocation industry needed to make a digital transformation that had not happened in their industry yet. We knew that the technology could do what we wanted, but we needed to change mindsets within their company, their industry, and their customers. The team knew that the most critical part of this innovation would be overcoming the human aspect, and that would take creativity and time. A plan was devised where a roadmap would be shared, training sessions would be held, and an entire suite of tools would be provided. This allowed naysayers to opt out, nervous nellies to modify controls, and power users to customize to their delight. We didn’t have all the answers right away, but we knew the goal, and we knew how to take the first steps. The details changed along the way, and thanks to an agile workflow we incorporated feedback while the project was being implemented. The client was the first in the industry to make the move, their nationwide network of independently owned companies were happy, the customers were impressed, and their competitors set out to emulate what we had created.

Myth #2 – Creativity is Stifled by Structure & Limitations

You’ve probably heard people dismiss innovative ideas with, “Well, we’re not Apple or Google.” For the average would-be innovator, a common breaking point is the structure they operate within. It’s very easy to say:

  • That won’t get approved here.
  • There are too many rules.
  • We don’t have enough time or budget to be creative.

Whether your industry is manufacturing, financial services, healthcare, or anything else, you can witness the same stories playing out. Employees will blame existing structure and culture for why they can’t innovate. Yet, in every case, you’ll find frustrated executive leadership wishing that their teams were more innovative!

We’re caught in a crux where most people think that structure is limiting them, yet you need structure to succeed! Consider the analogy of a poem. Poetry often has self-imposed constraints and boundaries. Structural elements include syllable counts, rhyming schemes, rhythm, and alliteration. It is the structure itself that makes it creative! The poet is forced to find solutions they may not have otherwise looked for.

A limited budget, for example, has proven to be a big win for some teams – pushing them to a new level of creativity. The Blair Witch Project was a huge success despite a $60,000 budget. Two-color poster design is less expensive and often much more intriguing than full-color, photographic designs.

A project I was on saw this firsthand. The client wanted to run a promotion in the Chicago market, where their product was being introduced. They needed to be scrappy and wanted to maximize impact on a small budget. At first, they were disheartened seeing the cost of using services that specialize in the digital aspect desired as well as the targeted marketing that would be needed. But our team took the extra time to consider all possibilities and found ways to utilize their existing website to handle incoming leads which also gave more flexibility to quickly make changes during the promotion. We also came up with an approach to target their specific customers using some niche stores in the area. With a simple web form, we allowed the merchandising folks at the partner locations to fill in a bit of info and print off custom promotional fliers. With those small pieces, the client gained flexibility, saved money, and built partner relationships that would not have otherwise happened.

Myth #3 – You Have to be an Expert to Innovate

Studies have shown that young children are more adept at finding ideas amid uncertainty than adults. Why is that? Simple: adults think too much, and children aren’t afraid to fail. Adults have an inner dialogue that can talk them out of trying things. We hear ourselves saying, “I’ll look stupid if I ask this question.” A group of kids tackling the same problem will try repeatedly, failing a dozen times, before they arrive at a solution that works. In her TEDx talk, Elisabeth McClure, eloquently explains this while tying it to why you need to foster both divergent and convergent thinking.

Young children are known for going through a phase of asking, “Why?” If they find an adult willing to indulge them, they learn a lot in a short period of time. Adults are conditioned to not do that – it’s seen socially as annoying or a sign of ignorance. Not true! Even the highly regarded courses on project management from Franklin-Covey recommend that asking “why” five times in a row can identify the root cause of issues. Yet, you seldom see it happen in the workplace.

Some innovation teams will include a role that they lovingly refer to as the “wildcard.” This is a person added to the team with the sole purpose of having an unexpected perspective on the problem. Someone who can be the divergent offset to the convergent thinking of the Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).

It’s a funny thing, because if you ask creative professionals, they’ll love joking about that one great idea that was killed when their client took the work home and showed their spouse, and they return changing everything… It’s not always bad though. A friend of mine is a general manager at a trucking company, but he tells me he always takes topics from work home and discusses them with his wife. She told me that she enjoys the chance to contemplate the problems they are trying to solve, and a couple of times they have used her ideas! Laughing, she said that his bosses joke with him that they are getting two employees for the price of one! She enjoys the extra creativity, and they benefit from an additional perspective and ideas they may not have discussed otherwise.

Myth #4 – Innovation Today Must be Technical

We’ve long been in the era of digital transformation. The news coverage focuses on the billion-dollar startup unicorns. You might feel left out if you aren’t technical yourself. But you don’t have to understand blockchain or web3 in order to be innovative. Innovation existed long before computers!

According to Merriam-Webster, there are two definitions for innovation, and neither talk about technology:

  1. a new idea, method, or device; novelty
  2. the introduction of something new

One of my favorite examples of non-technical innovation is from the Dutch electric bicycle manufacturer VanMoof. They reported that 25% of their bikes were damaged during shipping. The VanMoof team could have worked hard to over-engineer the packaging to be sturdier or insist on imaging during transit to identify causes of damage – bringing on additional costs. Instead, their team came up with a solution that had no additional cost. They simply changed the printing on their shipping boxes. No, it didn’t just say “FRAGILE”, it was even more brilliant than that! They put the image of a TV on the box, with a bicycle shown on the screen. According to the company, damage claims dropped by 80%.

Innovative VanMoof electric bicycle packaging. Shipping box with printed HDTV displaying a bicycle illustration on the screen.

Image Courtesy of VanMoof

I’ve also witnessed a conference room full of technical folks spinning out of control discussing required resources to “do it right”, with multiple servers, storage needs, security, error logging, testing time – blowing up the cost and timeframe – only to have someone from the business chime in with, “can’t we just send that info as an email to my department?” After initially scoffing at the simplistic idea, the tech team said, “well, if that’s all you really need, and you don’t mind the manual work…”

Conclusion

The world always needs new ideas and passionate people. Don’t fall victim to the myths above. Bust through your barriers by showing up every day and trying to solve problems. Let the constraints sharpen your wit. Don’t be afraid of the unknown. Search for the best solution, even if it isn’t digital.

If you build a culture of innovation within your organization that allows for the reality of creativity, then you’ll also be well on your way to creating an environment with psychological safety for your teams. Employees, consultants, and trusted business partners all need to feel safe sharing unrefined ideas. You want a team that feels like they can try things, fail, learn, and evolve their concepts. Human nature will quickly shut down their creativity if they don’t feel safe to experiment.

If you’re ready to start experimenting, reach out to your Perficient account manager, or use our contact page to begin a conversation.

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Brandon Luhring

Brandon is a consumer experience engagement manager at Perficient. His career has included running digital and marketing projects both in-house and as a consultant. He enjoys topics around creativity, innovation, design, technology, and leadership.

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