Consultants' Corner

5 Key Elements to Tackling Innovation

Rod Travers
Insurance Experts' Forum, July 8, 2010

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Post-it Notes. Spencer Silver, co-inventor of the Post-it, is credited with saying, “If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can’t do this.”

Innovation sometimes happens purposefully, and other times, it happens by chance. Inspiration happens far more often, but translating inspiration into innovation is the tough part. Industry-leading companies know this, and they have a corresponding common trait: they aren’t willing to rest on success. They encourage and support innovation. They push it.

Innovation is not just a fluffy penchant for creativity. It is truly a competency composed of many elements. These include leadership, culture, competition, communication, analysis, implementation and reward. For product companies, innovation tends to be a core competency because of the nature of the market. Better, faster, tastier, more convenient—those qualities translate to competitive differentiation and customer demand. Financial services companies tend not to have innovation as a core competency (feel free to disagree). Yet now more than ever, that’s exactly what these companies need.

Here are some elements of the Nolan process we use when helping clients tackle innovation:

•    Goals: aspirational targets that establish the realm of opportunity for innovative thinking
•    Ideas: from employees, customers, competitive intelligence, industry best practices, and other industries
•    Analysis: risks, practicality, required resources, hard dollars, benefits
•    Implementation: translating inspiration to innovation with well-defined, actively-managed projects
•    Shelf Life: innovations get copied and commoditized over time. Keep pushing

The Nolan process uses these elements and others, and each has important details behind it. One important detail is allowing employees to temporarily set aside their daily responsibilities and turn their attention to the business of improvement. Other critical details include establishing a resolute commitment to change, and being able to demonstrate the positive impacts to a range of constituents, from board members to front-line workers.

You might be tempted to think that all the good ideas have been thought of. A simple scan of the industry will dispel that thinking—great ideas emerge every day and, when implemented properly, they can make a material difference in a company’s performance and market perception. Which competitor has scooped you most recently? When was the last time your company rolled out an innovation, whether internally or externally? Are you playing catch-up?

Examples also abound outside the industry, like the Post-it Note. My personal favorite right now (perhaps this reveals too much about my diet) is the packaging of Oreo and Chips Ahoy!  How could anyone improve on the simple nature of cookie packaging? Nabisco has done just that with an ingenious package that looks just like its predecessor, but is much more convenient to use. Better, faster, more convenient.

You can do that.

Rod Travers is EVP at The Robert E. Nolan Co., a management consulting firm specializing in the insurance industry.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Rod using the “Add Your Comments” box below.

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