Innovation is defined many ways by many people in many industries and in many contexts; therefore, it is necessary to start with a definition of innovation within the realm of eCommerce and interaction or “user experience” for the purposes of this article. As I close in on three years as a founding Principal member of the Digital Innovation Group within the Online Business Unit of Sears Holdings Corporation, I’m starting to reflect on my experiences as a “change agent” within an extremely complex, extremely large and old national fortune 500 corporation.
The path that lead me to my current position is fragmented by breadth and depth of education coupled with work on a wide range of projects in many industries, from healthcare to mobile user interface design, to illustration and photography, to secondary market research and analysis to primary and ethnographic observation, to product development to product marketing and so on. It was fate that brought me to where I find myself today, being in the right place in the right space professionally and personally at the right time with access to the right people. Seneca puts it best “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Everything I have done up to the point of accepting my position with Sears prepared me for what I have had to face over the past three years. Sears offers one of the largest breadths and depths of product and service offerings of any company in the world through any channel one can imagine.
Innovation in this space requires a broad knowledge of many things as well as collaboration with many people across many specializations and roles. No one can be an expert at everything and a key skill of an innovator within such a complex and large organization is the ability to ask relevant questions to the most relevant people at the most relevant times. The second part of this is to capture, document, and analyze the information coming in from multiple sources, reflect and internalize and then project understanding to others. It is in process, discovery and rapid iteration that I learned the true meaning of the roots of innovation:
Innovation is not invention. Innovation is not an end to means. Innovation is not an end product. Innovation happens in process and exploration and the absorption of the world around us. In other words, innovation isn’t always a flashy new product or service. Most true innovation springs from synthesis, from frameworks and platforms that have a strong vision and strategy before producing tactics or “marching orders”.
“All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; Third, it is accepted as self-evident.”
? Arthur Schopenhauer
While working in an innovation group for a small design boutique, we knew we were successful at our work (innovation) when immediately after the presentation the reaction from our audience was emphatic, if not wholly engaged and immersed and full of questions, thoughts or inspiration. Sometimes the reaction would be “WFT!?” and when that happened we knew we truly “hit the ball out of the park.” While the immediate reaction to innovation may not be positive, the seeds planted by the presentation of it are more valuable long-term than any short term gains. In fact, most “disruptive innovation”, while reaping in huge financial rewards, is short-term and killed by fast following. It’s ideas that address a larger “vision-based” need for humans (in this context), that spark strategic thinking and possible tactical outcomes, that truly add value to a company that is sustainable.
“Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.”
? Arthur Schopenhauer
Anyone, creative or not, can rant off thousands of ideas for new products, processes or services. Only people who truly immerse themselves, open up to change, let go of entrenched ideas, can come to the enlightenment inherent in understanding. Due to time constraints, personal limitations, inherent human capability and the spectrum of intelligence, experience and power within a multilayered corporation, much of the knowledge that is shared is cursory or surface at best. Sometimes it’s the timing and context of how and where and when an innovation is presented that makes all the difference in the world. This doesn’t come by second-guessing your audience or tailoring your message, “crafting” it to promote understanding. This comes from the presenter truly understanding the innovation him or her or themselves and being able to articulate clearly verbally, visually, etc. in adaptive ways. While presenting innovation, it is important to realize that the presentation itself is a way to empathize with presentees and learn more about the innovation. Finding the right “triggers” and “entry points” as boundaries or pillars to an innovation is a two-way communication process. Thus, innovation in an of itself cannot be static or fixed and must respond and adapt to the unexpected.
Last, and vital to innovation within any large organization (and sometimes small), is to understand that there are seldom, if ever, immediate results or visible artifacts for innovation. Most of the time, the reward is a lack of understanding or the need for time for new ideas to “sink in”. In the meantime, the reaction is often negative, knee jerk write-off, flat out doubt. It is during this period that it is vital for innovation that one keeps “backbone” and sticks to the knowledge (or “truth”) of the vision and/or strategy. The rewards often come months after and in unexpected ways, like seeing people think differently or approach a problem in new ways drawing upon something they were shown (by you) months before and reacted poorly to. It is in that moment that the innovation has bloomed from a seed to a sprout to a fully-realized organism.