(Originally published in the Australian Financial Review, March 13, 2018)

I spoke at an innovation conference recently that had some big name speakers and companies. A leader from Airbnb talked about how his team had applied design principles to improve the inclusiveness of their innovations. An ex-Apple executive discussed the big mistakes innovators make. And a “Googler” spoke about how they use the physical environment to enhance collaboration.

Leaders eagerly took notes, presumably to take back to their team and consider implementing some of the strategies that these tech companies have done. Perhaps they will start hanging chairs from the roof of meeting rooms, like Google do.

But the problem when listening to any of these types of companies is you are dealing with a case study of one. And that is fundamentally risky.

It is risky because there is no data to suggest that this approach will work for your organisation. It is risky because only a crazy person would make fundamental changes to a company based on such anecdotal “evidence”. And it is risky because your company is probably very different to a phenomenally fast growth technology company (if you worked for Google, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article).

To avoid basing your innovation approach on sample sizes of one, follow these three rules.

Don’t get sucked in by the buzzwords.

In almost every meeting I have with a new company that has called Inventium’s (www.inventium.com.au) offices, I can guarantee certain buzzwords will be dropped in the first meeting. Design Thinking is often the first to be mentioned, followed closely by Lean Start-up Methdology, Hackathons, and Sprints. Sometimes Three Horizons makes it in, along with Blue Ocean Strategy.

Don’t assume that if you have heard of a methodology, that it is a valid and reliable way of driving innovation. Do your own research into the term and try to find large scale research studies examining its effectiveness in controlled studies.

While the above-mentioned approaches may work for some, consider the types of organisations that have worked well at, how your company may be different, and that any of the above buzzwords certainly won’t provide you with the panacea they claim to be.

Recognise the obvious differences between your company and the ones you aspire to be.

In “The Founder’s Mentality”, authors Chris Zook and James Allen discuss the big differences between a company that is run by its Founder (e.g. Facebook) versus one that is not (e.g. any of the big four banks in Australia). When a company exhibits the founder’s mentality, it demonstrates an insurgent attitude, an obsession with the front-line and employees have adopted an owner’s mindset.

Compare this to companies where the founder is long gone and the opposite often exists: a fear of challenging the status quo, leaders being out of touch with their customer, and a “renter’s” mentality. While Zook and Allen discuss how companies without a founder at the helm can seek to regain what perhaps they might have lost, it is a long and hard journey.

Trust the science

To decide on the best innovation approach for your organisation, you need to act like a scientist. Investigate research that shows methodologies that have been scientifically proven to work across a large number of organisations and industries. From there, you can then have confidence that it will probably work for you too.

Become a subscriber to some of the more popular peer-reviewed journals, such as Academy of Management Journal, Organizational Science, and Journal of Applied Psychology, and experience a significant uplift in your knowledge of strategies that have been proven to work.

So by avoiding fads and buzzwords, and assuming what has worked for Google will work for you to, instead, turn to the science to ensure that your innovation approach actually works.

Dr Amantha Imber is the Founder of Inventium, an innovation consultancy that only uses tools that have been scientifically proven to work. To learn more about Inventium’s science-based methodology, contact us at hello@inventium.com.au

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