I’ve recently been invited to speak at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business at their Innovation Club in the spring of 2010. The question that was posed to me was How do I innovate? How do I come up with innovation? What is the thought process? That’s a really hard question for me, and I wanted some help from my readers here.

Some of my proof of concepts or demos such as the 3D Desktop and the virtual corkboard could be thought of as innovative. However, I’ve really struggled with this question and wanted to really put some thought into this question and put it out there to stimulate a discussion.

Everyone wants innovation these days. It is seen as a key component to disrupt the market and defeat the competition. Companies are spending money on “labs” programs, innovation workshops, and innovation centers. Everyone wants to know the secret of being innovative and the question was posed to me and some of my colleagues.

I’ve just recently read a really good book called “Inside Steve’s Brain” by Leander Kahney which explores Steve Jobs’ thought leadership. Apple is seen as a very innovative and disruptive company so I thought this would be great to include some excerpts in this post. Here’s Job’s response to the question by Rob Walker, a New York Times reporter, if he ever consciously thinks about innovation:

No. We consciously think about making great products. We don’t think, ‘Let’s be innovative! Let’s take a class! Here are the five rules of innovation, let’s put them up all over the company! … [it's] like somebody’s who’s not cool trying to be cool. It’s painful to watch…

In many ways, that’s been my mentality. I’ve never really thought: be innovative. Usually my thought process is, What’s the best/easiest way to solve this problem? I also think a lot of making great products. I never think this product needs to have some innovation juice injected into it. However I do think: How can I make this product better than anything else out there.

A great example of this is the visual document search. When I was at Accenture Technology Labs, I created a really awesome product which was document search on steroids visually speaking. The use case was this: Accenture being a consulting firm has lots of Powerpoint presentations. Analysts can’t take a crap without creating a Powerpoint deck. That’s just the reality of big consulting firms. At the time, we had something to the effect of 300,000 Powerpoints in our corporate document repository which comes to about 2 per employee. Search was a pain because you ran search, clicked on the document you THOUGHT was the one you wanted. This opened up the document in Powerpoint. Then you realized this wasn’t the one you were looking for and you started the process all over again.

So what we created was a visual interface that replaced the results. Instead of seeing a list of the returned documents in Google-esque SERP (search engine results page), we see a list of thumbnails of each document returned. Clicking on that showed you the actual slides for each deck WITHOUT you having to download the document and open it up in Powerpoint. It was a huge time saver. In fact we did studies that showed that people browsed 4 times more documents from 4 to 16. Some of the feedback we got was awesome:

This is very close to what I have ever dreamt of in KX search. Fantastic! Please continue to support and enhance those tools.

I just took a look at SABLE. Great thing keep up that innovative work. It alreadz looks like Minority Report / Neuromancer experience. Is there any chance to get this kind of frontend/browsing tool to work on a desktop/local file system?

When we were thinking about that problem, we weren’t “being innovative”. In my side of the labs, I was trying to solve the problem of how we visualize large datasets. On the other side of the labs were the machine learning people who were solving the problem of analyzing all our documents in the corporate repository. Somehow we came together and put my visual interface onto their better search engine.

So I think that’s what innovation is all about. When two or more seemingly unrelated solutions come together, and the result is greater than the sum of its parts, that’s innovation.

One of the great things about the Apple Macbook is the magnetic power plug. For you Windows people, the Macbook’s power plug is not “plugged in” to the laptop. Rather it is held onto the laptop by a magnet. This has saved many a Macbook from ending up on the floor because someone tripped over the power cord. This “innovation” actually came from Japanese rice cookers. They had this feature so that little kids wouldn’t trip over the rice cookers and burn themselves over steam and boiling water.

If I were to sum up my thoughts on innovation, I say that it most often comes from outside. Outside your industry, outside your office, outside the box. To that end I try to see my world through outside eyes. I’m a software developer by trade, but I subscribe to tons of online publication that are not at all related to my world. I read a lot on web design, industrial design, scientific research, marketing, and other topics totally unrelated to my industry in hopes that I might be able to apply stuff that is taken for granted or common knowledge in some other industry and apply it to mine.

With that in mind, I’d like to hear what some of you think about this and what your thoughts are around innovation. Thank you.

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