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What is innovation?

Recently we held The Idea Hackathon, a 1 day unconference event to connect like minded people and have interesting conversations on a range of topics. One of the topics discussed was what innovation actually is and how we can foster it.

We encounter many companies who count innovation as one of their company values, and lots who have innovation labs or teams. Yet so few seem to really be innovating, it made me wonder a bit more about this word that we use all the time.

Alicia mentioned that in Roman Pichler’s book Strategize he discusses 3 types of innovation: a twist on an existing idea, a pivot to an existing product/business, and a disruptive idea. I think that many companies are seeking disruptive innovation, which although valuable is potentially much more difficult to do. Often small but valuable twists and pivots are ignored as ‘innovation’. We also discussed how a synthesis of other ideas (none of which are innovative on their own) can create powerful new products or ideas.

We all concurred that innovation needs to solve a need in a new way. But it is often the need that gets lost somewhere along the way of trying to build the new facebook or twitter. Someone posed a question in the group about what was the last innovative thing each of us did. It was a great question! I love thinking that at Growing Agile we are innovative, but to be honest I had a difficult time coming up with something I had done in the last month that I would classify as innovative. Does this mean we actually aren’t as innovative as we think, or that it is really hard to identify small improvements we make continually as innovation, because they don’t seem worthy of the label?

I recently experienced a new service in South Africa which I think is very innovative, it is simply a twist on an existing business model but solves a very specific need. I had came to the end of my car loan, and decided to give up my car (since I don’t drive much anyway). I was intending to simply return my car to the dealer where I had a guaranteed buy back deal to cover the residual balloon payment. However Sam pointed out that my car was probably worth more than what I would get from the buy back, since mileage was low and it was in great condition. I looked around and I could sell it privately for quite a bit more, but I would then have all the admin hassle and risk associated with that. If I sold it to a dealer there would be no risk, but I wouldn’t get as much money. Then I discovered GetWorth. A new business offering a service between these two alternatives with a shared risk model. Essentially they do all the admin, and the amount I get is on a sliding scale based on how quickly the car sells. I ended up making R11,000 that I never expected to make, and the entire process was smooth.

I loved the idea. Talking to one of the founders I discovered he was a serial car owner having bought and sold more than 60 cars in his life. He clearly identifies with the need that I had which was to find a simple way to sell a second hand car for the best possible price, with the lowest risk. If I think of the startup or new product companies I have worked for and with, so often the team members are disconnected from the needs of the people they are innovating for. What do high income individuals with expensive smart phones in South Africa really understand about the unbanked population using feature phones in Uganda? How close can we get to identifying with their real needs? How can we build empathy with users who are completely different to us?

I came away from the discussion thinking that understanding these needs and having empathy with users is what drives real innovation, and that anything that delivers new value to people with that need should be seen as innovation regardless of how small and simple it is.

So back to Growing Agile – had we ‘innovated’ recently? If we focus on empathy and delivering new value then yes. As for making money… no. And maybe thats a whole other problem – how to make money from your innovation 😉

So what about you and your team? How have you innovated this month? What need have you delivered some value towards?