Product innovation is a fabulous field in which to work. Innovation mixes several interesting ingredients – markets, technologies, creativity – to generate products that are valued by customers. In turn, companies generate profits when they deliver products and services to consumers that delight and inspire them.
Researching markets and technologies is deliberate and structured within product innovation. Product managers use inquiry tools and statistical analysis to understand categories of customers as well as to pinpoint areas of opportunity. R&D practitioners analyze experiments and data to design novel technical solutions. Market research and technology development both follow specific processes with known performance metrics.
Yet, creativity if often shrouded in mystery. Many people assume they are not creative because they don’t view themselves as “artists”. Others claim that only wild-eyed scientific geniuses are creative, coming up with ideas like a lightning strike. In truth, creativity for product innovation is also a structured process with four key elements.
There are two elements to creativity from a people perspective – individual and team creativity. As individuals we all have different experiences and bring that diversity when generating ideas for new products. Individuals with various work skills and backgrounds “see” the problem differently. For example, a marketing specialist might define the problem in terms of product awareness while a technology specialist might see the problem as a set of puzzles and a technical code that will unlock the solution.
Higher levels of creativity occur, however, when we collaborate as a team. The marketer cannot successfully deliver innovation on his own by simply raising product awareness. The technologists cannot deliver a new product by simply designing a great piece of hardware. Instead, when we combine the viewpoints of a cross functional team, we can generate truly radical innovations. Sharing the different perspectives of a problem – from the customer’s viewpoint as well as from each team members standpoint – enhances creativity and the end solution.
While it seems counter-intuitive, creativity increases when we place reasonable constraints around the problem. You might dream about your weekend plans if you had infinite money and no restrictions on your time. Perhaps a trip to an exotic beach or taking in a Broadway show would be on the agenda? Yet our dreams of limitless wealth are not actionable.
Teams are most successful in identifying creative product solutions when there are some boundaries around the problem space. Having infinite funds or unlimited time opens every possibility and too many choices can be overwhelming. Instead, your weekend plans must be creative if you can only spend $100 and have two fixed time commitments. Maybe you take the kids to the zoo just after their Little League game. It’s a fun and unusual family activity while solving the problem within the given constraints.
It goes without saying that curiosity must be a key element of creativity. The status quo cannot serve to grow a business or to generate innovative products over the long-term. Creative curiosity is a desire – a passion – to figure out how things work. In new product development, the marketing representative is curious about the problems consumers face and the technical representative is curious about how to build a widget to solve that problem. Creative curiosity is always looking for ways to improve a system and searching for the “real” problem.
Are you curious? How do you approach a new opportunity? Creative curiosity involves jumping in to quickly learn the who, what, why, and how of a problem.
The final element of creativity is learning – learning from failure and learning from each other. Not every idea works out as we planned. Sometimes our ideas are too radical for an existing market. Oftentimes, we cannot find the cost-effective technology to scale for commercial application. These are “failures” by one definition, yet there are also opportunities for learning. Each piece of knowledge stacks up to help us solve the next problem, even if one particular approach didn’t work out perfectly.
Another aspect of creative learning regards quality. A lot of us are perfectionists because of our passion and love for our customers and career. Yet, sometimes, good enough is good enough. When a famous artist changes his style from realism to abstract, he might learn new techniques and learn to be satisfied with the quality of each new painting, even though it isn’t perfect. A mystery author can add new twists and turns to the story line, depth of characters to her text, but the book must be written in order to be read and appreciated. Learning to define “done” is an important feature for creativity within the bounds of product innovation.
Four Elements of Creativity
A lot of people I know claim they are not creative. This is troubling since I know a lot of people working in new product development. Everyone can be creative. I suggest you start with these four key elements of creativity.
- Use a cross-functional team to build empathy across many different perspectives.
- Place loose boundaries around the problem space to enhance creativity.
- Encourage curiosity by offering new options and seeking to deeply understand the problem.
- Practice continuous learning and accept failure by recognizing that good enough is good enough.
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