Want to create a better environment for innovation: Get out of yours and into theirs.

I had an interesting discussion recently with a company vice-president about the role of facilities design in innovation. He asked me what he could do in terms of layout and aesthetics to make the work environment more conducive to innovation. Anyone familiar with my Theory of Constraints (TOC) based approach to innovation improvement will know that my response was to ask him what constraint he thought was holding back his organization’s innovation throughput.

He pondered my question for a second or two and replied, “I guess I’d have to say that it’s finding more impactful new product ideas.”

That made my response simple. “Then if you want to create a better environment for innovation, get out of yours and into theirs.”

He stared at me with a puzzled look for a moment and then smiled. “So you’re saying that the internal stuff isn’t where I should focus.”

“Well, one of the most impactful things a manager can do is to keep their organization focused on high leverage activities. You have to decide where the focus needs to be for your organization. But I would have to wonder if internal facilities are really your biggest problem.”

Of course, it’s the era of design. So I don’t mean to completely dismiss the role that the physical environment and culture can play in fostering creativity. If you’re putting up a new building, it’s probably worth considering. Having worked both where R&D and marketing were located in separate buildings and where they were co-located, I can say that locating them together definitely helps people interact and problem solve more easily. Similarly, I’ve worked in some cutting-edge facilities from a design and aesthetic view. Who could argue against having views that inspire, lots of open spaces, and ample team meeting areas?

But for most companies, it’s really missing the point to make the R&D and office work environment the focus of your innovation improvement efforts. Instead, the important thing is to get people out of the office more often to visit customers and end users in their work environments. That’s where the actual problems exist and where the real inspiration for new products will come from!

The best new products solve customers’ problems by simplifying or eliminating costly, difficult, time consuming, or unpleasant tasks. These kinds of ideas aren’t likely to come to your people while they’re in the office. These problems live out in the market. An entire discipline of ethnographic research has grown out of watching users in action to identify these problem tasks. When researchers see these problems firsthand, they get additional insights into the problem that lead to a better solution.

The 3M Post-it is a great example of the how getting out of the office can help create great new product ideas. 3M Scientist, Art Fry, was a singer in his church choir and was frustrated when the little bits of paper he used to mark pages kept falling out of the hymnal. Unfortunately, he couldn’t use any of 3M’s tape products because that would have torn the pages. Fry invented Post-its when he recalled the poor adhesive one of his colleagues had accidentally cooked up and began using it to make his hymnal markers easily removable.

Customer focused innovation works best when researchers can get out and see the problems firsthand. When SC Johnson researchers observed consumers problems with cleaning the shower, they invented the Scrubbing Bubbles automated shower cleaner as a way to simplify the job. Push the button on your way out of the shower and it keeps the shower clean for you. Sometimes it takes development people with a strong understanding of the technology to see the customers’ problem and at the same time envision how they can solve it.

Many companies will struggle with this advice because they leave the customer interaction to sales and marketing. But limiting your R&D group to work on the ideas that others bring in is like asking them to work with part of their brain tied behind their back. Often, these companies come to me saying that they have plenty of ideas, but they just aren’t seeing the results they had hoped for out of new products. Well, it’s no wonder. Most sales and marketing people focus on selling what’s available today. Occasionally they look for opportunities to tweak or customize products. That can create new business but rarely results in high growth new products.

The More Impact Bottom Line:

Work environment can play a role in innovation and creativity. However, most companies would do better to focus externally on the customers work environment. That’s where the problems are. If you can connect your development with those problems, that’s also where you’ll see the most new product impact.