Superheroes inspire 3 best practices for innovation in the workplace, says this CEO

Todd Rovak, Contributor
Sandy Felsenthal | Getty Images

Innovation can encompass anything new that creates value — an idea, a product, a way of doing things. For many, it's elusive, imagined as something only the most creative can achieve. In fact, we typically hear that innovators are just born that way.

In reality, innovation doesn't magically appear. It's a skill — a discipline — that can be learned, honed and strengthened over time.

A couple years ago, I took a tour through Mattel's design center. The biggest takeaway from the day struck me at the end of the tour, as we reached the hallowed superhero section. There was a sketch of Batman and a sketch of Superman, and our guides explained that children don't necessarily always identify with Superman as much as they do Batman. People, both young and old, connect more with the guy using gadgets, training and tools to better himself. Superman was born perfect. But Batman makes himself super.

Here are three things about innovation that I was reminded of from that experience.

1. Use "two-sided solutions"

The Batman vs. Superman lens is one we use a lot to talk about innovation at Fahrenheit 212. There's a common misconception that innovation comes from nothing, and that you'll know it when you see it. It's just there, from the beginning, like Superman's powers.

Those who subscribe to this belief consider innovation throwing Post-It notes on a wall — celebrating every idea without constraint, and figuring out how the ideas work for the business later. Industry standard success rates from this approach hover around 15%.

The alternative is to become a bit more like Batman — to work on the tools and the training required to innovate. Part of this is knowing what a good idea looks like, something we at Fahrenheit call "two-sided solutions." These are ideas that must survive a process that forces solving for both the business model and the customer need in parallel. It's a process that we've seen achieve an 87% success rate, which certainly beats the randomness of the brainstorm.

The alternative is to become a bit more like Batman — to work on the tools and the training required to innovate.

You might have heard in a brainstorm that "there are no bad ideas." Of course there are bad ideas. We must be as ruthlessly accountable in idea creation as we are in any sport — there are winners and losers, and participation trophies don't really help anyone succeed or improve. Google+ didn't solve an unmet consumer need. The initial pricing model of Classpass was unsustainable for the business.

This isn't 20/20 hindsight — I'd argue that these are products of innovation processes in need of finer tuning. Learning to recognize and eliminate "one-sided" solutions early is just one example of how thinking of innovation as a skill set that can be learned, scaled and repeated can deliver something thought of as unattainable: predictability.

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2. Search for chain reactions

In a recent study of CEOs from around the world, 97% called innovation valuable, a priority or their primary focus. This creates a counter-force on innovation that many don't speak about —time pressure.

Another toolset within the innovation discipline is around how to make choices when the clock is running out. Commercial innovation can feel like diffusing a bomb: there is only time to cut one wire...but which one?

We teach people to look for the one problem that, if solved, can have a chain reaction. Resist the urge to focus on quick fixes that simply optimize the business, create a new feature or react to a customer complaint. Map out the effect of each potential solution and try to solve the big problem behind the problem.

This skill is the basis for creating innovation strategy, and it's the way to keep the bomb from blowing.

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3. Go small to go big

Water takes many shapes, and most are calming and gentle. Waves lap upon the beach, a faucet drips, pools cascade down a fountain. But focus that same element in just the right way, into a small, high-pressure stream, and you've created a force powerful enough to cut through metal and glass.

Now apply that same idea to an innovation initiative. Innovation strategy, ahead of ideation, asks for analysis that narrows the field of solutions, then focuses in on one key area, insight or problem to solve. Your impact will be greater and you'll be able to hone in on that big idea. To go big, you first have to go small.

These are just a few examples to land a simple point. Process is not the enemy of creativity —they go hand-in-hand and both are necessary to build your innovation engine. Whether you're a little more Batman or were born Superman, innovators can learn, improve and grow as with any other craft.

The key is to stop thinking of innovation in terms of your Post-It notes, whiteboards and random sparks. Instead, develop your process, skills and shortcuts. Put another way: head down to your batcave and get to work.

All before the age of 40, Todd Rovak has had a meteoric career being named the youngest partner at Fahrenheit 212 in 2011 and then being appointed to managing partner in 2013 before eventually becoming CEO of both Capgemini Consulting and Fahrenheit 212.

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