Except it’s not really is it?  Where there’s innovation, there’s a cost.  There’s an opportunity, sure but there’s time, people, materials, trials, management, analysis, results – innovating is FAR FROM free.

Yet we all know we cannot survive without it.  Some form of innovation is crucial to keep our customers happy, to keep our products and services relevant and some form of energy and fulfillment of our own people in their work.

Yet this is the “rubber hits the road” stuff.  We need to speculate to accumulate as the saying goes.  Invest in some innovation to give us a competitive advantage so to NOT innovate is madness.  How much then, do we sanction innovation type activities and then hope for the best?  Do we bring something of a managed environment to this so we can track costs and likely benefits?  That hardly feels innovative though does it?

There is though, a way to make innovating as free as possible.  And it’s been around as a theory for a few years.  Potentially masquerading as that lean management principle “continuous improvement”.

The free innovation principle then is Innovation as Usual.  Pioneered, championed and extolled by Thomas Wedells-Wedellsborg in his 2013 book of the same name with Paddy Miller.

What’s so different about this approach you may say?  We adopt an “innovation culture” so we MUST be doing this?

Well here’s the six areas to focus on and prove that concept is a reality:

  • Focus: direct the search for innovation and help people focus on what matters
  • Connect: help people connect outside the organization for new insight
  • Tweak: make people challenge their understanding of the problem
  • Filter: help people continually evaluate and discard ideas
  • Stealthstorm: help people navigate the politics of innovation
  • Persist: motivate innovators to keep going

Focus is not about restricting innovative thoughts and actions, it’s about channeling the energy so that the efforts are maximised and there’s a chance something innovative will take off because it’s relevant, super-useful and makes a difference.  It’s part of the innovation process to get random; abstract and so on but when it counts, it has to have yield, impact and resonance.

Connecting is about the source of inspiration, testing theories, seeking “white space” around existing documented ways and methods.  What good is it to benchmark similar organisations when all you’re likely to get is shaded variants of what you already have when you could go wild and find something unrelated but massively useful.  Care workers go visit art studios and technology companies to find out about use of light and space that lift human spirits.  When we’re in our own company all we feel is homogeneity, when we go outside of that space, we see patterns and tangents that spark our imagination.

Tweaking is an approach that Malcolm Gladwell labelled at Steve Jobs.  Influenced by Xerox’s pointing device; passionate about fonts; and obsessed about elegance, Jobs was a tinkerer or a tweaker according to Gladwell.  He looked at problems with a tweaked approach to come up with a solution that in itself, was almost so obvious when unveiled, others wondered why they didn’t think of it.

Filtering is that rare gift in an innovator – the ability to rightly rule out cul-de-sacs of innovation versus freeways of exponential benefits type innovation.  How well you filter and are honest with yourself will determine how much of the right kind of innovation gets your energy and attention.  And then of course, how well it succeeds because you discarded less likely versions or ideas that could have distracted you.

Stealth is one way of looking at a subterfuged way of innovating – keeping it underground so it doesn’t get killed by bureaucrats, egos or envy.  Working something up, trialling it, having a secret creates not only a positive deviant approach to innovation, but also trying things out and proving their worth before disbelievers and doubters get a hold of something means it is more likely to succeed even if the doubters accept it through gritted teeth.

Persistence is probably the toughest of all things when innovating.  Keeping the faith, trialling and iterating on your designs all test your belief in your innovation, yet are necessary when it comes to normalising and regularising your innovation.  Yet the most tenacious of innovators get there in the end.  Edison’s famous 1000 ways a lightbulb wouldn’t work kind of persistence.

So innovation as usual is the cheapest, leanest and potentially most potent strategy you can have to innovate for free.  So I guess if you DO have an innovation culture, the absorbed “innovation as usual” approach is perhaps your ultimate, unseen, mark of success.