“The Innovation Zone” demystifies the process of innovation

“The Innovation Zone” demystifies the process of innovation

In an economic landscape that rewards agility and speed, businesses and organizations that constantly strive for new approaches by cultivating innovation figure to be the likely winners of tomorrow.
While that is hardly a revelation, one of the paradoxes of innovation is that people inside organizations erect barriers to new ideas and processes that could improve on the old idea(s) that made the company successful in the first place. In doing so, they unwittingly stymie the future, says Tom Koulopoulos, a Boston-based consultant and author of “The Innovation Zone.” (Davies-Black Publishing, $27.95)
In order to overcome that organizational inertia – one that strives to protect the past and the “old ways” instead of constantly striving to reinvent itself – companies need to create a protected space within the organization where new ideas can take shape, Koulopoulos writes in his new book, which dissects the process of innovation in understandable terms.
Large organizations such as IBM and Microsoft don’t continually innovate by chance. Rather, they have developed a systematic process – an “Innovation Zone” – where ideas are solicited, developed and nurtured without fear of reprisal to the ideas’ originators. On the contrary, idea owners are recognized and rewarded in organizations where innovation zones thrive.
Shaping a culture of innovation is an essential part of having the type of environment where ideas flourish, Koulopoulos writes. All too often, good ideas are never acted upon or bleed out of an organization because the ideas are met with resistance. What matters is the practice and process of innovation that emulates the attitudes and practices of successful innovators, he says.
Because innovation is tied to uncertainty, organizations that can quickly mobilize for unanticipated opportunities are more likely to succeed. In his five laws of innovation, Koulopoulos writes that innovation is dangerous, impervious to rejection that it is a team effort and not a solo flight, and that is it always poses a threat to yesterday’s success. What’s more, innovation is increasingly not invention but, capitalizes on past successes to create something new that produces business value.
Companies that make innovation systemic and systematic, that think of it as being a process rather than a specific product and something they do every day, are the ones who get it right, Koulopoulos says. Great innovation is the result of a sustained process of countless repetitions, he adds.
To allow for new idea sharing, a strong element of trust must be in place, and establishing an innovation zone is the safe harbor where new ideas can take hold and flourish. The book is filled with examples of successful companies that have established innovation zones, such as Partners HealthCare, a Boston-based integrated health system. The non-profit organization’s Research Ventures & Licensing (RVL) group is held as a model for any large organization that places a premium on employee creativity and the value of innovation. In 2006, RVL succeeded in generating 449 inventions for a 30 percent increase over the previous year, and formed 12 new startups to commercialize inventions, realizing $327 million from its licensed inventions.
Important building blocks
If you think of the Innovation Zone as a funnel where hundreds or even thousands of ideas are distilled, some key building blocks need to be in place in order for the winning ideas to come out at the end of the process and be commercialized, Koulopoulos says. They include:

  • Idea ownership
  • Idea evaluation
  • Idea championship
  • Idea storage
  • Idea valuation

Successful innovation starts with creating a process that is fair and transparent, and not just having a suggestion box where ideas go to wither and die. It creates incentives for inventors where the owners of ideas can share in possible commercialization. It also creates metrics so that ideas can be measured. And, the organization’s leaders must embrace the concept of innovation, with internal “idea champions” at top levels of the organization.
Re-innovation is no longer confined to the laboratory and the R&D department, Kouropoulos writes, but rather, spans across the organization from the scientist to the salesperson in continually seeking out new approaches. While R&D is far from dead, major Internet inventions such as Google, You Tube and Amazon.com came about from other sources outside the R&D lab.
Open innovation
Reaching out to customers and other sources outside the organization opens a new window into a company’s own process of innovation. Far too many organizations are simply not open to outside ideas, Koulopoulos says.
Being open to a new idea from an inventor outside the organization helped propel Precor in the fitness equipment field. This happened when owners saw potential in a crude mockup for an elliptical trainer that competitors had already passed on.
The one certainty is that the greatest ideas will continue to come from unexpected sources, Koulopoulos writes.
The Seven Lessons
In the book, Koulopoulos lays out the seven lessons of innovation, which is the nuts and bolts where hard work lead to enduring value. They are:

  • Build for the unknown
  • Fail fast
  • Abandon the success of the past
  • Separate the weeds from the seeds
  • Focus on process over product
  • Create an innovation experience
  • Challenge conventional wisdom

Staying in the innovation zone means living the lessons on a daily basis, and requires committed leadership, Koulopoulos adds.
Acknowledging Drucker
Koulopoulos’ lifelong fascination with innovation began many years ago with his introduction to the late Peter Drucker. It was the late management icon’s practical approach to innovation that shaped Koulopoulos’ approach and served as the foundation for a career spent studying and teaching innovation.
The core of Drucker’s philosophy is that innovation is about simple, commonsense processes that need to be put in place and made into a discipline. In his own work with organizations, Koulopoulos has found that companies tend to aggrandize innovation, placing at the top of some distant Mount Olympus.
For organizations large and small looking to demystify the process of innovation and turn it into something tangible – something that creates lasting business value – the Innovation Zone is a must-read on the road to an ever-changing future that none of us can predict.