Outer-vation – How To Get Innovation From the Outside

Estimated reading time: 3 mins

Although it is very true that the best innovation comes from inside your organization, sometimes it is preferable to seek outside help from unusual sources.

Innovation is about doing things better. It’s also about challenging one-self and the status-quo we find ourselves in, and it can result in major step-change as well as continuous improvement. Organization’s that empower their employees to generate ideas and see them being acted upon is an ideal that few achieve, but more and more are doing so. Focus on innovation is high on most CIOs agenda’s.

The problem with inward-looking innovation is that it is often constrained by a common perception of an opportunity or challenge, so everyone involved has a strong sense of the same barriers to change, so they don’t get raised. Organization’s can often be accused of linear thinking, even when innovating. What is sometimes needed is a fresh view.

But a fresh view can be often expensive. Bringing in consultants and external change managers can be an enormous cost. But wait – this thinking is linear thinking! Why are external professional consultants the only way of getting this fresh view?

What you need is some ‘outer-vation’. There are many alternative and unusual sources of a fresh view. Here’s where.

  • Your spouse or partner
  • Your parents
  • Your friends who you share a beverage with
  • Colleagues and connections in LinkedIn
  • The guy from Accounts
  • Your hairdresser

These are just a few. You might be thinking "what do these guys know about my business and organization?" But aha! that’s the point. These people won’t be shackled by the baggage (technically described as an ‘instant perception’) you and your colleagues carry. They will see the opportunity as you describe it – and describe it you must from an agnostic point of view. That’s if you can describe the problem in a way that is factual and simple to understand. And I think this is the test. If you can’t do that then perhaps you need to gather more facts and conceptualize the opportunity better before you continue your innovation, whoever you choose to work with.

Using ‘outsiders’ in this way is especially productive if the persons you approach are ‘right-brain dominant’. Why?

  • The right side of the brain controls your creative, visual, spatial concepts.
  • The left side of the brain controls your logical, mathematical judgmental, analytical activities.

If you’ve been attempting innovation with ‘left-brain dominant’ people so far, then it’s no wonder you are stuck.

Don’t believe me? Then try it out. When I first thought of this a few years ago, I was skeptical myself. But necessity drove me to try it out on one particular opportunity where I couldn’t find anyone internally to help me, and I had no budget to bring in external help. The opportunity in question was how to build an application that was extensible and configurable by a non-techie, so that they could offer each client a different experience on their extranet. This was long before MS Sharepoint or WordPress was around. The solution I came up with was just like MS Sharepoint, and WordPress, in fact. So I scratched my head and twiddled my thumbs for ages, until I defined the problem in a simple way and asked my friends, and also my wife, for their ideas. What I got back was pure magic. They solved the problem for me, in a delightfully simple and naive way.

So if you’re stuck with a problem or opportunity, then seek the help of your hairdresser!

Here are a few books that I think will help you stimulate innovation:

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4 thoughts on “Outer-vation – How To Get Innovation From the Outside”

  1. Listening, truly listening to one’s customers will also generate a bunch of ideas from different fields.

    Your customers are not sharing these tidbits with you? There’s a communication problem. Fix that first.

    Asking disinterested third-parties can be successful, but as you said, you really have to make the question easy. That in and of itself gets you halfway to a good solution.

  2. To Chris – that is a good point. I don’t think in my company we listen to customers enough. I sit on the phone in a call center and they often complain in a roundabout way but there isn’t a proper channel for the complaints and ideas to get through to management. We don’t have user groups or anything like that. I think if we listened to more customers we would actually deal with many business problems

  3. @Phillip, easy solution:

    1) Give your customers a mailbox like suggestions@companyname.com prominently on the home page.

    2) Answer every single email in person. This means no automated answers, no canned answers. Yes, management will have to dedicate staff to that task.

    3) Compile these on an internal wiki (your company does have an internal wiki, right?) so that management can get a bird-eye view of the problems.

    But this segues into another topic altogether: management’s unwillingness to create and maintain effective two-way communication channels in the company.

    Simon, don’t you have a post about that somewhere in your archive? No? Great idea for a new article!

  4. @Phillip – Chris makes some good suggestions here. If you work in a small organization then these suggestions might be easy to implement. In large organizations, there are likely to be many hoops to jump through… but nevertheless worth trying. You could speak to your colleagues and see if they will work with you to raise the suggestions. Phillip, check out this article: Communicating ‘Bad News’ – it speaks from a management viewpoint but it might help you in your approach.

    @Chris – good idea for the article… I don’t have anything that directly addresses that

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