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Innovation is Driven by Intention, Not Inspiration (Guest Blog)

While it’s true ideas are sometimes conceived in a flash, there is a lot more to the story.

Innovation isn’t driven by a moment of inspiration, it is a discipline that is cultivated through intention.  Do you know how to manage people towards turning an idea into the next big thing for your company?

There is a myth surrounding innovation that I’ve heard a million times in my eighteen-year design career.  It goes something like this, “He was driving to work one morning when the idea hit him like a lighting bolt, and the rest is history.”  The issue with this perception is that, while it’s true ideas are sometimes conceived in a flash, there is a lot more to the story.

Most disruptive companies were founded by people who were actively looking for an idea.  They knew they wanted to create something and were searching their minds and environments for “it.”  The difference between those people and the rest of the world is that when they thought of “it” they took action.  We’ve all had great ideas.  As a matter-of-fact, you can wager that more than one person thought of ride-sharing before UBER ever launched.  The UBER founders actually did something to make it happen.

Regardless of whether you work at a well-funded start-up, a small business or a large corporation, there are opportunities for innovation –  and innovation doesn’t necessarily mean you must create something disruptive.  The more frequent application is finding ways to make things better.  It could be a product innovation, a process innovation or an experience innovation.  No matter the application, I’ve found there are some principals that hold true if you want to manage people towards ideation and ultimately successful innovation.

Have an innovation framework

Innovation often dies in the brainstorming phase.  There are plenty of good (and not so good) ideas.  How do you know what ideas are worth pursuing?  What do you do with the ideas? I use Design Thinking to provide structure to guide teams from understanding the goals and users all the way through to delivery.  Having an innovation framework helps establish productive ground rules for the group, creates a step-by-step process, and enables the team to quickly identify and correct issues and assess feasibility.

Don’t just rely on the experts

Zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.”  Beginners don’t know if what they are saying or proposing is “right,” whereas experts tend to be ingrained in doing things “right.”  Opening your ideation sessions to people with fresh perspectives can break your team out of a rut.  Then you’ll need to train the experts to work to figure out how to turn a flawed concept into a feasible idea rather than how to shut it down.  The best innovation teams are diverse in thinking and experience which creates a richness and depth of ideas that cannot be achieved when only experts are at the table.  You can read more on the beginners mindset here.



Cultivating a team that is poised to innovate means assembling a wide variety of experiences and personalities, and creating a culture where it’s acceptable to pitch a bad idea that can be improved upon.

Learn to fail smarter

We’ve all heard that you must allow for failure if you want to innovate.  This is true, but only to a point.  What you really want to do is to figure out what is going to fail as quickly and inexpensively as possible.  The more efficient you are in understanding the pitfalls of a new idea, the better off you will be.  Small experiments, prototypes and feedback give you an opportunity to correct errors and might even lead you to abandon a concept altogether.  At the end of the day, an innovation needs to be feasible, and the sooner you can confidently identify failures in your concept the better off you will be.

Create a culture of trust

Google studied their teams for years to understand what makes the most successful teams.  This is what they found:

“In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.”

Creating an environment where people feel confident, safe and appreciated is the fundamental process necessary to build trust amongst team members. You need to be an example for the team and recognize team members for displaying the behaviors that will cultivate a high-performing, innovative team.

Invest in innovation

Have you ever wondered why disrupters are nearly always tiny companies that seem to come out of nowhere? Large companies have huge budgets and some of the greatest minds on staff, so why do these Goliaths so frequently fail to innovate?

Once a company has a successful product offering that becomes profitable, they tend to move into protection mode.  Risk is minimized, and investment is funneled towards optimizing profits and sales of their core offerings.  It makes great short-term sense – you can use your money to try new things, which is inherently risky – or you can invest in a proven winner.  In the long-term however, you’re setting yourself up on the wrong side of disruption.  You must choose to make the investment necessary to disrupt yourself before someone else does.

This is merely the groundwork – the base-level culture you need to truly innovate. From here, evaluate where your team is in relation to each point, and make a conscious decision to give them the room to innovate.

Joann Stylianos is Director of Marketing and Design at Xceleration.

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