Innovation, or creativity, is not an inherent trait, but a learned skill. While there is nothing mystical about innovation, some companies seem to be much better at it than others. Companies that are good innovators do not live in a limited technology vacuum. The objective is not to have one great innovative idea that morphs into a product, but to provide consistent innovation toward generating product platforms that create a series of cascading products that customers are eager to purchase. Two companies that are consistently introducing new products because of the innovative atmosphere they have created internally are 3M and Apple. Both companies accrue a large percentage of their sales from products that are under three years old.
What is the secret to innovation? At 3M, researchers are allowed to spend 15% of their time pursuing areas that they find exciting. 3M also encourages the mobility of their staff between operating units. This approach allows people to think outside the box. Exposure to a broad range of technologies expands the engineering toolbox with new ways to solve problems. Quoting Jonah Lehrer, "For prompting creativity, few things are as important as time devoted to cross-pollination with fields outside our areas of expertise." 3M has over 60,000 products in a multiplicity of markets.
The approach at Apple is different. Apple is a network innovator. Network innovation involves cultivating ideas both inside and outside the company (open innovation). They are not limited by the "not invented here" syndrome. They integrate and improve existing technologies, and pay very close attention to user-friendly packaging. Apple uses small, focused product-development teams that communicate frequently both internally and with production and senior management. Apple's innovation does not use traditional market-analysis tools. Often customer input is limited to perceived needs that may be shortsighted and focused heavily on near-term goals. The actual long-term needs of the customer may be more difficult to discern. However, input from inside and outside can lead to thinking beyond the normal product migration path to true market-altering disruptive innovation.
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