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Innovation. The word brings up an image of a mad scientist in a lab, working towards a Eureka moment while tinkering with weird and wonderful equipment. Or it might provoke images of a Mark Zuckerberg lookalike, busy programming in front of his laptop in the hopes of coming up with the next big thing.

The reality of innovation, however, is much more prosaic. Consider the invention of the web. “There was no Eureka moment,” Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, says about conceiving one of the world’s most important innovations. “It was not like the legendary apple falling on Newton’s head to demonstrate the concept of was a process of accretion (growth by gradual addition).”

Indeed, for most companies, innovation occurs gradually. This is true even if we live in a world of increasingly short product and service lifecycles—a world where companies have to continuously re-invent themselves to avoid becoming irrelevant.

So why is it such a slow, gradual and arduous walk to the next big thing? Is it because that’s just the way it has to be, or is it because we’ve generally got the wrong people involved in the wrong aspect of innovation at the wrong time?

These questions inspired a study we recently did regarding people’s strengths in the innovation process. From our experience, we’ve seen that some people are great at coming up with ideas, while others excel at identifying viable concepts. And yet there’s a third important group: those who are superb at giving critiques and providing suggestions to improve other people’s ideas.

While our hypothesis seems to make sense based on our experience, we wanted to validate it. We conducted a survey of over 4500 people in the US, UK, and Canada and asked them to rank the following tasks in the order in which they feel they have the greatest strength:

  • Generating ideas for products and services
  • Evaluating other people’s ideas for products and services
  • Suggesting improvements to other people’s ideas for products and services

As you can see in the graph below, there’s almost an equal distribution between the three groups—a result that is the same for the USA, UK, and Canada. Interestingly, these findings hold true for men and women, young and old, rich and poor.

Data reveals peoples strength in the innovation process

The results of our study suggest at least three opportunities for brands that want to engage in co-creation:

  1. Play to the strength of the entire community.

Our data confirms what we’ve known all along: people have varying strengths when it comes to innovation. While some people are great at generating ideas, some excel at evaluating and refining what has already been submitted. That’s why you need a process that plays to everyone’s strengths—an evolutionary process of idea generation, review, and refinement.

Marketers can harness better quality ideas by getting people to do what they already naturally do best. The result is a process that people enjoy, which then helps ensure the strength of your community.

  1. Go beyond the idea-generation phase.

Less than three in ten people in the markets we looked at confess to having the talent of coming up with new ideas. That means if you are only talking to those who can generate new ideas on the fly, you are not tapping into the creativity of most consumers.

To be productive, new product development should involve people in the entire innovation process since many of them are good at evaluating and improving ideas. That’s one of the reasons why co-creation, which draws on the energy of an entire community, is such a powerful source of innovation. Co-creation recognizes that innovation doesn’t stop at idea collection.

  1. Use people’s different strengths to refine ideas.

Turn creative frenzy into a refined, iterative process by getting people to help weed out non-viable ideas early. Use people’s strengths to build a collaborative process that turns quirky (but promising) ideas into brilliant ones.

The most effective approaches to innovation are process driven, but they also don’t hinder creativity. Our data and our experience suggest that co-creation is a great approach since it taps into people’s creativity and ingenuity in a focused, and project-driven setting.

Our study highlights that innovation is not a singular activity. The myth of the lone inventor is just that: a myth. In the age of the consumer, innovation is driven by a robust approach that draws on the strength of an entire community. 

By Andrew Grenville and Stephen Benson

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