In today’s business climate, you’re either innovating or falling behind. Innovative companies are growing faster, staying ahead of their competition, and taking advantage of new opportunities. 

But what exactly is innovation, and how do you harness it? Nick Karels should know: he’s a former Master Innovator at one of the largest and longstanding tech companies of the last 30 years. He also has patent development experience, and has regularly been a management consultant for companies in the fortune 100.  

We sat down with him to talk about what innovation is (and isn’t), how to effectively be innovative, and how companies can benefit from innovation as a service. 

Upfront warning: don’t play a drinking game with the word innovate/innovation. We’ll mention it a few times 😉 

How do you define innovation?

“Anything that can scale the output of human productivity or improve the user experience so much that people or businesses are willing to invest in it.”

Innovation has started to become an ambiguous buzzword – what would you say is not innovation?

“Improvisation is not innovation… though it can lead to it. An example is playing a jazz melody on a guitar; that’s a great improvisation example. Jazz is all improv. You can use a scale and play any note along that scale without sheet music. 

“If you want to innovate, you could look at a problem and really think of how to fix it. Musicians find it repetitive bending the G string in country music, so you could find solutions that address that problem (such as a whammy bar.) 

“But a whammy bar basically bends all the strings. Since the goal is to only bend one, you create a G bender. One of the most popular things to do in country music just became easier. Now anyone can install and use your G bender and get a perfect change in pitch on a G string.” 

What are the most common barriers to innovation in business?

Culture is the easy answer. I think this also answers the question of how to innovate within a company that doesn’t want to change. Lots of companies are happy doing what they are doing and are resistant to change, because change is hard work. To fix this, you need to identify exactly what’s going on. Why is the team resistant? Are they happy doing what they’re doing now? That complacency hides you from seeing something that could be easier or bring in more revenue. You can either plant seeds to influence later decisions, or use an outsourced team to quickly show the value of innovation. 

“Time is another one of the greatest barriers to innovation. Lots of people can be innovative if given the right amount of time, and that’s something in short supply in corporate America. That’s why companies are creating digital offerings to lead innovation; If you can offload that time barrier to a 3rd party, you can make progress on anything.

“Another point to think about is resources. Sometimes the components are out there, but it’s still not possible to innovate. Think of a rain jacket: a majority of people don’t even know the options of how to innovate that. What materials are available? What fabric weaves are there? While there are resources out there to innovate, you may not have access to them. But if you crowd-source, you can often find that access or solution you didn’t know about!”

How can you build an innovative tech product? How do you know the tech you’re building will be innovative?

The tech product itself doesn’t have to be innovative; the innovation is looking to solve a need in a differently better way than has been done previously. 

“One example would be indoor navigation. Companies are using open-source maps for outdoor spaces to represent indoor spaces. This has inherent problems that require innovative solutions that large tech companies still haven’t figured out yet. If there isn’t a tech solution for the thing you’re solving with tech, you can bet you’re being innovative.”

Does innovation have to be tech-based? What are other ways to be innovative in business?

“No!

“Innovation tends to sit in the marketing house, but that needs to change. Innovation can happen and be driven from anywhere within a business. There is plenty of innovation throughout an organization (if you know how to capture it.) 

“Look at your internal processes. Look at time spent in meetings. And look at budget allocations or ramp spending. That last one is important; ramp spending is last-minute spending so that you can use up your budget. The goal is to make sure you get at least that amount the following year. Budgets should be based on need, especially if you’re wanting to build an innovation team. That excessive spend can be allocated to innovative practices as opposed to unnecessary expenses. 

“Another way to be innovative outside of tech is by using online collaboration tools; they’ve proliferated quite a bit in the past year. You can often find new and better ways to decrease operational waste: Save productive minutes by using an AI bot calendar scheduler like calendly. 

“I also want to point out that Agile development doesn’t work perfectly for non-tech innovation. While it’s great for the tech development lifecycle, it’s not as effective when the initiative is more nebulous. Updating an internal process has a lot more moving parts with shifting priorities. I recommend a more FLUID process: Form a Team, Learn Requirements, Understand User Experience, Iterate on Requirements and UX, and Develop and Improve.

Remember, Agile starts with a big picture – use Agile when you know exactly what the end goal is but the means to achieve that goal change often.” 

What tips do you have for a company trying to become an innovative one?

“Look at your culture and audit your capability to innovate. Are your competitors coming out with innovative products? Is your market being disrupted? You need to quickly adapt and move your culture into an innovative space by encouraging innovation within your culture, transforming it into a more innovative one, or outsourcing your innovation activity to drive quick engagement.”

What is the greatest innovation in history? What’s your favorite?

“Getting deep into the technical layer, I think transistors are probably the greatest innovation in history. The ability to switch power without any moving parts, using an electronic medium and current is brilliant. It enables practically every computing device on the planet. 

“On the same technical note, I think programming language is one of my favorites. Because of the ability to program, technical devices can be made to solve almost any problem that requires a machine to interact with the world.”

What does innovation as a service mean?

“Innovation as a Service (aka INaaS) is a way to drive innovation by augmenting internal thought leadership with the capability to expand upon and deliver their ideas.”

Can a company teach its people to be innovative? Or is it an innate skill?

“You can teach some aspects of innovation because it can be driven from a process. But creativity, which is at the core of that process, is much harder to tease out.

“This is why crowdsourcing is so effective. There will always be more people with more knowledge in your industry when compared to your internal pool. You’re basically blasting out a request for ideas to a mass of people. Some of those people will be highly creative, and others will be great at enhancing an idea once it is fleshed out.”

Why would a company need/want to partner with an innovation as a service group?

“A company without significant resource availability to respond to a disruption in the marketplace could benefit from partnering with an innovation service. There are several directions you can go with an innovation team: you can find growth opportunities in existing product lines, look for alternative uses in other markets, build new products and services entirely, improve your internal efficiency, or minimize the time impact to their existing resources. While cheesy, the possibilities with innovation really are endless.” 

What is Slingshot’s process for helping a company innovate? What is Slingshot’s innovation as a service process?

“It’s a three-tiered approach: audit and provide strategy, curate and cultivate ideas into deliverable products, and partner to deliver innovation as a technology development, product offering, or even separate business.

Any one tier can be independently executed; it all depends on your IT maturity, innovation ecosystem, culture, current product suite, and market. The smaller the firm, the less likely you are to need auditing, but more likely to need curation. Less team members means you don’t have the time and resources needed to efficiently and effectively innovate.” 

What would you say to pushback on innovation as a service, specifically that you can’t “catch lightning in a bottle?”

“Lightning is the result of charged particles exceeding the capacity of the atmosphere to hold them, so they must be discharged. Those charged particles are uncaptured innovative ideas within your organization, and having a way for them to be discharged before lightning strikes is a way to catch that moment of lightning before it leaves your organization and becomes a competitor’s service, or worse, lost forever.

“A company without significant resource availability to respond to a disruption in the marketplace could benefit from partnering with an innovation service. There are several directions you can go with an innovation team: you can find growth opportunities in existing product lines, look for alternative uses in other markets, build new products and services entirely, improve your internal efficiency, or minimize the time impact to their existing resources. While cheesy, the possibilities with innovation really are endless.” 

Thanks Nick for teaching us all about innovation and what we can do to evolve our businesses. 

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