The Cycle of Continuous Innovation
Some innovation truisms:
- it is not uncommon to perceive innovation as the ’big bang’ introduction of high-tech solutions to hard problems or creating brand new industries;
- most innovation is actually achieved through the incremental and continuous improvement of existing processes;
- the big bang commonly occurs when either all opportunities to innovate have been exhausted or external factors, such as advances in technology or some fundamental shift (entropy) is introduced, and
- anyone can be an innovator.
We’ve always done it like that
If you’ve ever wondered why something is done a certain way, or worse, uttered the immortal “we’ve always done it like that”, then opportunities for innovation are likely all around you. Just this morning I realised that the little dish used for the day’s teabags (before going en masse to the compost bin) should be situated next to the kettle (where the mug is filled) and not all the way on the other side with the condiments.
Innovation === optimisation
In applied mathematics and statistics, problems are often grouped under the innocuous term ‘optimisation’ which may be generalised as ‘finding the best available combination of the resources available.’ Since there is, sadly, no such thing as a perfect solution, optimisation is often achieved by ‘minimising error’ - by iteratively adjusting the available inputs and monitoring the result.
This is analogous to the concept of continuous innovation. In moving the teabag caddy, overall time was reduced (more efficient) and the likelihood of dripping tea on the floor (error) was reduced. A small, incremental improvement to an existing process.
Sometimes the change may not result in an improvement (the box of teabags is still far away) or the process may already be constrained (can’t move the kettle because there are no other sockets.) Any participant in a process or user of a system can spot opportunities for innovation.
We recently helped the States of Guernsey introduce a system of Simultaneous Electronic Voting into the States of Deliberation. It was very much a big bang innovation – moving from the traditional system of Deputies shouting ‘pour’ or ‘contre’ sequentially to a fully digital simultaneous system that amongst other things, in real-time publishes a permanent digital record of vote results. It has created significant time-savings, efficiencies for the parliamentary team and is built on cutting edge technology. It has, in no uncertain terms, effected constitutional change, which will be of significant benefit to the people of Guernsey for years to come. Innovation aplenty.
The Policy Letter that was published in support of moving to the system, though, described the 20 years’ build-up. The process had, to some extent, been continuously improved and iterated over many years to the point where no further improvements could be made with the resources available. The cycle was complete and so it was time for a fundamental shift. And with the system now in place, the cycle of continuous innovation restarts and, importantly, anyone can suggest incremental improvements to continuously improve it.
In the meantime, though, I’m off to move all the mugs to the cupboard above the kettle.
This article first appeared on page 23 of the November edition of Business Brief.