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The Ingredients of Innovation

December 12, 2012


We were recently recognised with an award for innovation. This meant a huge amount to us as a company and to me in particular. I’m a designer. I love design in all its forms and I’m passionate about making things work better. Being recognised for something that I designed (and that utterly consumed me for about nine months) is a BIG deal to me.

It got me thinking about innovation and what it takes to be innovative. Now, I’m no expert in innovation, however I do have some pretty good ideas and I know how to develop them. When you watch Dragon’s Den and see some really great innovation the temptation is to think ‘I wish I’d thought of that.’ The trouble is, the initial idea is the easy bit! Here are some of what I think are the ingredients to true innovation along with some ideas on how to achieve them.

A great idea – yes, you need a great idea. It doesn’t have to be completely original – few ideas are, but it does need to achieve something quicker, better or more cheaply than what is currently available. I always have some sort of digital device on me and I note down ideas as they occur to me. Some of these I do nothing with, some I integrate into current projects or products, others hold my interest and I come back and refine them. I always keep an eye open for commercial opportunities to develop my best ideas. Sometimes a customer appears looking for just what I’ve come up with. My original idea for goalgetter dates back about eight years!

Self-belief with flexibility – you need to be certain yours is a good idea and you need to be able to convince others of this easily. If few other people ‘get’ your idea, or it takes you half an hour to explain it, you probably should rethink. One way to build belief in your idea is to research the market and look at what competitors exist. I personally prefer to define my idea quite fully before looking at what else is out there. This is so that my design isn’t influenced by what already exists. Also be prepared to change your idea based on your research and input from others. Don’t continue on blindly when the evidence is against you. Be flexible and instead try to identify the aspects of your idea that you should keep and look at how else you could develop it.

Tenacity – you do need to be tenacious to push on through the challenges you’ll face, and yes, there will be many. There will be times when:

  • You’ll struggle to find the time to work on your idea
  • You’ll lose faith in what you’re doing
  • You’ll want to quit
  • Another easier option becomes available to you and you have to make a choice

It is tough. In times like these I return to the core spark of the idea and reaffirm what I’m doing. I also minimise risk by initially building it as cheaply as possible using the tech I have available. This might be paper and pencil, wireframes or a prototype. Minimising the risk makes you less likely to give up.

Great execution – actually creating your what-ever-it-is will be an ongoing challenge taking many months and possibly years. You need all of the above to achieve this. Ideas are everywhere. You can generate a dozen in an hour. The real skill comes in sifting them, refining them, building them and testing them. Make sure you use a flexible design and development process. Prototype early and often and get lots of user feedback. Don’t be afraid to radically change your designs if you need to. Work in small batches so that if something doesn’t work you haven’t wasted a lot of resources. Build as late as you possibly can and leave plenty of budget for changes. Seek out people who will be great constructive critics of what you’re doing. Your harshest critic can give you the greatest insight – and if you can win them over to your idea, you are almost definitely onto something!

Design in general, and innovation in particular, are not easy – but they are hugely rewarding. In the UK we are a nation of inventors and tinkerers. It’s one of the few things that we still lead the world in and something we can be rightly proud of. Feed your creativity and you could be the next Tim Berners-Lee.

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