A confluence of thoughts on innovation and questions running around my head, so it must be time for a blog post. Innovation is further up the hype-o-meter than social media in UK business.  Everyone wants to be innovative, and quite rightly so. There are innovation conferences, innovation consultancies and innovation workshops springing up all over the place, of varying quality. Innovation is a core survival skill, isn’t it?

Where Does Innovation Come From?

Actually innovation comes from taking risks, and opening yourself up to making mistakes. That doesn’t sound like a survival instinct. Survival is about not taking risks. That is one of the reasons innovation is such an anathema to businesses – failure is an almost inevitable consequence of innovation. On average 4 out of every 5 start ups fail. New projects usually fail. Inventions often don’t work out. That is just statistical fact. I might have evaded the odds from time to time personally, but the fact still remains that not all risks pay off.

Where Does Innovation Go?

Innovative startups turn into cautious businesses as they grow, in order to survive. Then, when new competition appears, innovation because critical once more. How do you go back to being innovative again? Listening to Phil Smith (of Cisco Systems) and Ian Smith (of Oracle) today, at the Thames Valley Innovation Day, provided a perfect example of big companies looking to do just that. But the kind of “submit your ideas here” initiatives they mentioned don’t create innovation – they are just idea-harvesting – they move innovation from one place to another. In their case it does keep ideas within the business, rather than seeing them head out, to be the next start up they end up buying back. Sadly, there won’t be much innovation if no-one is coming up with good ideas to collect and execute.

At the same event, Sir John Chisholm talked about QinetiQ, what was once the innovation engine of the UK defense industry, now a private company. Innovation is about “thinking new things”, he said. It isn’t so much about innovators, as it is about having an innovative environment. To that end, Cisco is moving from a command and control management structure to a more distributed ‘tribal’ model, with mini-boards responsible for smaller areas of the business. It was sobering to note that the current down turn is at least in part due to (poor) innovation in the financial markets. It was financial product innovation that enabled huge amounts of capital to flow into economies, funding innovation and growth in a way not seen in any previous civilization. Sadly, it was not sustainable innovation.

“Most new things don’t succeed. That’s just a fact. The more radical the invention, the lower the statistical chance of success.” Sir John Chisholm.

How do you innovate then? Consultancy ?WhatIf! came close to hitting home. In a very entertaining talk, they spoke about the issues of fear and the “yes, but…” mentality which can kill innovation at birth. Our attitudes, the behaviour of others, and the organization around us are all key components in enabling innovation.

How Do You Keep Innovating?

From my perspective, there is a simple thing we can do to foster innovation, and it is this: Ask stupid questions. Time and time again, when I get involved in a new business, I end up asking ‘stupid’ questions. Of course the questions aren’t really stupid. Questions are a tool to check assumptions, and to fill gaps in our knowledge. They have other uses too, but for stirring innovation, challenging questions are the golden dust that brings things to life.

Have a “stupid question” allowance for yourself, and for those around you. Questioning challenges the status quo. Questioning enables us to fill gaps in our knowledge. Start asking questions, it isn’t a stupid thing to do, it is the beginning of innovation.