Innovation is something that is easier to talk about than actually do. To innovate, you need to be willing to take embrace risk. It’s not something that most are willing to do in the world of marketing and public relations (PR).
When is the best time to get started doing that task you need to get done? Now. The same applies to innovation. The best time for it isn’t later but now.
I’ve read articles over the last several months that have implied that with all the uncertainty that we have all experienced that now is a good time for innovation. Easier said than done.
Uncertainty tends to breed fear. When you’re afraid do you think about creating change or do you cling to the familiar? If its the former, you are an adventurous soul but most of us are likely going to do the latter.
Innovation is hard work and it isn’t for the faint of heart. This is why companies stick with the status quo rather than innovate.
Even if you are adventurous, there are many road blocks that can trip you up but I’m getting ahead of myself.
What Is Innovation?
Innovation is often a buzz word that sounds really good but what is it really? Webster’s Dictionary defines it as:
- a new idea, method, or device
- the introduction of something new
Unlike some definitions, I feel like this one is really clear but let’s look at some quick examples anyway.
The combustion engine was innovative because it was something completely new. It eventually created a revolution that killed off the horse and buggy as a mode of travel.
The very first computer was completely new so it was also an innovation.
Sometimes something gets defined as innovative when it’s nothing more than a better way of doing something that has already been created.
The computers we use now are work completely different from the first computers. There have been multiple innovations in the components used and how we interact with them.
When I was a kid the idea of having a computer that would fit in my hand that I could use to read, watch a video, listen to music, chat with my friends, and play games was something that would have seemed like science fiction. Yet through innovation, it’s not a dream but a reality.
The iPod may have become the most popular MP3 player but there were other MP3 players out on the market well before it. The product itself wasn’t innovative. It wasn’t something new on the market. The innovative piece was the method of how people interacted with it.
I’d played with many MP3 players and the experience was clunky. When I picked up an iPod for the first time it was intuitive. I understood how to use it immediately. That was the innovation.
The basics of marketing and PR haven’t changed much but the way we connect to people and the way we apply our skills has been innovating. Sometimes innovation happens incrementally over a period of time so we don’t notice it as much.
If you talked to a marketer from 20 years ago and told her or him we would be able to target a specific audience through a device that they carried in their hand, they most likely find it to be a fantastic tale. Yet, here we are doing just that and we have been doing it for several years.
It’s a fantastic innovation that has happened over a period of time but there are things that can block it.
Best Practices Are In Your Way
You may have read the heading and strongly considered leaving. Let me ease the anxiety that I may have just caused.
I’m not against best practices. There is a reason why organizations invest time and resources to find and document best practices. They help you get work done in an efficient way.
I spoke about best practices in our most recent newsletter so I’m not going to talk about it at great length here but I am going to reiterate a couple of points that I think are important.
Best practices start with good intentions. As I said, they are there to help us get work done efficiently. The problem is that they can lead to complacency.
Sometimes organizations act like best practices are set in stone and nobody dares question them.
You’ve likely run into a situation where you have inquired why something works the way it does and you get this answer: It’s the way we’ve always done it. I’ve found that this is just another way of saying they have no idea why it’s done this way.
Best practices aren’t infinite in nature. They are finite. You need to know when to apply them and when to and when to push them aside to find a new way.
As the world changes around you, best practices need to be re-examined and updated. The problem is that most of the time they’re not.
To innovate requires you to question why you do the things you do but you need to understand why you do it in this way.
You need to learn everything you can and then proceed like it’s all wrong.
That’s a scary thing as it requires you to question yourself and we don’t like doing this. It’s uncomfortable.
I’ve had this experience many times and I’m sure you have at least once. You read an article by somebody very well respected in the industry and they confirm what you already do. This is the best way to do this thing.
It feels good because you feel a sense of belonging. Better yet you’ve been validated because this person who wrote a book and speaks at conferences all around the world has the same perspective as you on this topic.
Perspective Is Everything
We all have a perspective on how we view the world. Your perspective is created through social construction, which is to say, it is created based on the experiences you’ve had.
If you truly want to understand somebody’s perspective, all you really need to do is start talking to them. As they tell you about their experiences you will start to understand why they have their perspective but that’s a different article for a different blog.
Perspective has a big influence on innovation.
You’ve heard the adage, if its not broke, don’t fix it. It’s a nice way of saying, don’t rock the boat.
Maybe you’ve had an experience where you tried to introduce a new idea or knew somebody who did that was then labeled a troublemaker and/or lost a job. This is an experience that shapes your perspective. What you walk away with, is don’t challenge anything. This doesn’t breed innovation.
The flip-side to this is maybe you grew up in a household where you were taught to questions things. You find a job with a company that really does want you to give ideas on how to improve things. This shapes your perspective in a positive way that it’s ok to think about innovating.
Fear of Change
One of the biggest enemies of innovation is the fear of change. Humans are creatures of habit and we don’t like change.
For those of you who are old enough to remember, computers in the 90s all looked the same. They were big beige towers with a monitor plugged into it.
Apple came along and introduced the iMac with candy colored shells that you could see through and it was all in one. Whether you thought it was a good computer or not, it caught your eye because it was different.
The first reviews I saw were dismissive. It looked different but who cares? They are using this new technology called USB and nobody is making any USB peripheries so Apple is making this weird computer that is ultimately going to fail except it didn’t fail.
It became a huge hit and was widely credited with saving the company which had been experiencing hard times.
Apple was once again talked about as being an innovative company. USB became standard on computers but there is a funny story behind it.
I had originally thought that Apple created USB but they didn’t it was Intel. For those of you who are too young to remember (or weren’t born yet) the 90s were dominated by Wintel computers given this name because they used Intel chipsets and Windows as the operating system.
Why didn’t Dell, HP or any of the other companies producing Wintel computers jump on the USB train first? After all, they were already doing business with Intel. It still seems ironic to me that Apple, who wasn’t using Intel chipsets happily adopted USB before anybody else.
Everybody else was scared to change. Apple wasn’t.
Prior to working in PR, I worked for a company that measured everything and it always tied to business outcomes. I’m going to be completely honest. When I first saw how PR measured I thought it was the most ridiculous system I had ever seen.
It told us absolutely nothing and catered to our client’s egos rather than business outcomes but it was the way that it had been done for years and to suggest something different was sacrilegious. I met somebody who said she had actually been kicked out of a PR forum for suggesting that measurement be tied to business outcomes. I think they did her a huge favor.
In 2020, PR is finally coming around to around to this “new” idea of measurement. It’s taken a long time because people were afraid to change but I think driver is the fear of becoming obsolete trumped the fear of change.
Innovation requires a different mindset.
Embrace the Unknown
A few nights ago I was watching an interview on YouTube with Henry Rollins and Steve Vai. Vai talked about Frank Zappa and how if he had an idea he just did it. This led to Zappa doing some unconventional things.
What stood out to me was that Zappa wasn’t afraid to nurture an idea and follow it to wherever it took him. He wasn’t afraid of upsetting the status quo. He embraced the unknown.
As I write this, there is much that we don’t know. COVID-19 is still having a major impact on our lives and the business world.
It’s easy to hold on to the things that have always worked but all of a sudden when they don’t work what do you do? You either embrace unknown or risk losing everything.
It’s been mentioned that COVID is forcing change on us which also means that we are all being forced to re-examine the way we do things.
This doesn’t mean you are innovating but it does mean that you are open yourself up to the possibility of innovation.
A Real-World Example of Innovation
Events are a part of our learning. They all have pretty much the same structure. Listen to some speakers who will impart some ideas upon us and you then determine if and how you are going to apply this information. There is also the networking aspect with the people that you meet at the event
When COVID hit, events got moved online but the same basic structure still exists. Listen, apply, network.
Prior to COVID, I ran across a couple of guys from Australia, Steve Claydon and Darcy Smyth, who focus on helping people with sales.
One of the ways they do this is with an event but Steve and Darcy went in a different direction. Their event, The Sales Game, includes networking but it eschews speakers. They took the event and gamified it.
A couple of weeks ago, I got 2:30 am so I could participate in a slimmed-down virtual version of The Sales Game.
As we were getting ready to start they gave us four rules:
- Knowledge of self is key
- Know others
- Back yourself — courage is the goal not confidence
- Back others — watch the world become a beautiful place when you transcend into service
We started with 20 chips and could do anything to get more. The winner would be the player who had the most chips.
That was it. They turned us loose to talk to each other and earn chips.
Networking was built into the game. You couldn’t earn chips without interacting with people but It turns out I didn’t need a speaker to learn.
Would this work for every event? No, but it worked for this one.
It was a really innovative event. I met some great people and I learned a lot.
You Can Be An Innovator
When you think of innovators, you likely think of some giants such as Henry Ford, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg. These are people influenced huge changes in our world. How could you possibly be one of them?
Being an innovator isn’t about finding fame or going down in the history books. It’s about creating a new of doing something and you have it in you to do it. We all do.
The difference between you and an innovator is that they are questioning the way things are done and looking for new ways to do them.
It starts with curiosity. What if there was a better way? What if the way you do this now is wrong?
The best time to create new innovations will always be right now. What are you waiting for?