The Three-Step Process for Becoming the Next Apple

By Marc J. Schiller

Almost everyone knows Jony Ive, the one-in-a-million senior vice president of design at Apple who created the look and feel of the MacBook Pro, iPhone, the iPad and other innovative products. Without minimizing the pivotal role that Ive played in the creation of these devices, he was not solely responsible for them. Ive gives credit for his enormous success to his team members and to the unique environment at Apple that enables employees to be as creative as they need to be.

That’s right, even the supremely gifted Jony Ives of the world recognize that great innovation is rarely the work of one individual. Without the right atmosphere, systems and collaborators, even the most impressive creative genius will bear little innovative fruit.

This basic truth holds an important clue for all of us in IT that are regularly called upon to create creative tech solutions for our stakeholders’ needs. The problem, as reported by many IT pros, is that much of their efforts to suggest new ideas and innovate are met with limited enthusiasm.

That’s not too surprising. In most organizations, the prevailing belief is that innovation is the bailiwick of highly creative types who produce brilliant ideas that almost immediately capture everyone’s attention. The reality is, nothing could be further from the truth.

To get innovation flowing in your organization, try the following simple three-step system that seeks to embody some of the core principles and practices of the world’s most innovative organizations.

Step #1: Set up a “Problems and Solutions” whiteboard

  • What to do. Place a whiteboard in a very public area, such as your lunch break room. Take a marker and divide the whiteboard in half. Label one half “Problems” and the other half “Solutions.” Encourage everyone to write down their problems and encourage everyone to write down ideas to solve those problems. (You’ll be shocked by what they come up with.)
  • Why and how it drives innovation. Companies don’t innovate in a vacuum. The very best innovations often come as a response to a practical problem. By encouraging the open documentation and a focus on problems, the Problems and Solutions whiteboard creates an energy and drive for building solutions. The whiteboard not only helps to being problems to the surface, but it also clearly ties solutions to those problems and opens up the dialogue around practical problem-solving as opposed to “innovating.”

Step #2: Host a $10,000 investment challenge

  • What to do. Gather together your team members in front of the solutions side of the whiteboard. Give everyone on your team a virtual $10,000 to invest in the ideas they like best. (Individuals can invest as much as they want per item.) Once every virtual dollar is invested, tally up the results and see which ideas received the most investment. These are the winning ideas you will take to the next round.
  • Why and how it drives innovation. Good ideas are plentiful. The challenge is getting them to work in the real world and that takes a lot of work. What’s more, it’s really hard to know which ideas will prevail. How can you choose which ideas are worth exploring and which just won’t work? You could, of course, pick the winners yourself, but this method draws on only your expertise. By tapping into the insights of other employees, you demonstrate that, as the manager, you recognize you don’t have all the answers. And opening up the idea-vetting process to as many people as possible also reduces any hint of personal bias.

I wish I could take credit for this idea, but it comes from Rite-Solutions. The Rhode Island company implemented this internal idea investment scheme and, within the first year, it generated 50 percent of their new growth.

Step #3: Test multiple ideas

  • What to do. Ideas need to be tested before they are promoted as innovations. How you test each idea depends on the idea itself, but you’re on the right track as long as you generate the data needed to produce a real-world picture of what will happen if you implement each idea. Some ideas won’t perform as well as you hoped. Others will exceed your expectations. Just be brave enough to trust the results and let them decide which ideas you will toss away and which you will develop further.
  • Why and how it drives innovation. The greatest innovation takes place in the testing process. It’s where the idea is banged up against the real-world needs of the user community and the value of the idea is proven. After all, developing great ideas, as opposed to simply picking one of them, is what the innovation process is really all about.

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