Innovation is About Mindset

Don’t Limit Innovation to Be Just About Product or Tech

Several years ago at SXSW, I was at a dinner with business leaders and was pleasantly surprised to find myself in the company of Chick-fil-A CEO, Dan Cathy. Quite frankly, I did not expect a CEO of a company of the scale of Chick-fil-A at an event focused on creativity, design, and innovation. Yet, along with the thousands of other conference attendees, he was taking in the emerging trends that technologists, creators, and designers were shaping for the world.

A comment Dan casually made about how he decided a few years back to “be more like an entrepreneur” caught me by surprise. Chick-fil-A, founded by his dad, was the ultimate entrepreneurial company. Its restaurants are run by entrepreneurial-minded operators around the world. But as Dan talked more, I realized he was talking about how he operated as a leader, how he set the direction for the company, and how he shaped the culture of the company.

What he was really talking about was having an innovation mindset.

An innovation mindset is always curious and seeking what is new. Dan was describing the mindset that prompts his company to have an innovation center dedicated to creating the best possible customer experience and empowering its team to apply innovation methodologies to solve problems and explore opportunities across the company. This mindset inspired Dan to constantly explore what is new, and it’s what he was using to lead the company into the future.

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I ask this question all the time to audiences and the answers vary tremendously. If I ask 20 people what comes to mind first, I will get 20 different responses — and many won’t be close to correct.

I would almost say that there is a bias in how people think and talk about the term “innovation,” based on how it’s used in the media and our business lives. When I mention that I work in the innovation space, many people immediately assume that I am a technologist. That’s a fair assumption. Tech has become synonymous with innovation, and it makes complete sense as we continue to see exponential advances enabled by tech.

Think about how Mailchimp has empowered small businesses for connection and e-commerce through email. Or consider the ‘big name’ technology companies like Apple, Google, and Tesla that constantly introduce new “innovation” via their technology. You can even build an “innovation investment strategy” by investing in funds and ETF’s that are focused on innovation and filling a portfolio of an all-star list of rising star tech companies that are indeed very innovative.

Some people see beyond the boundaries of the technology sector and view innovation as being about new products, especially in CPG. Again, that’s fair. New products and services are generally the manifestations of innovation in a company. And many companies measure their innovation success through new product launches.

The danger in trying to correlate innovation with a product is that it limits the possibilities that innovation truly can produce. Sara Blakely built Spanx around her innovative women’s apparel. Tristan Walker identified an unfulfilled need in the market and created Bevel under his Walker Brands Company, which ultimately was acquired by Procter and Gamble. In these cases (and so many others), was it the product, the approach, or the company that was innovative? It really is all of those. These leaders (like other innovators) introduced products to serve needs in the market that were being ignored. They also “innovated” a brand and company to create amazing customer loyalty that extends beyond the product itself.

While there is no dispute that technology and product needs tend to prompt and reflect innovation, it is limiting to restrict the definition strictly to these tangibles or the companies that produce them.

Our tendency to hinder innovation doesn’t stop at how we talk about it. We also tend to measure innovation too narrowly. While it’s true that (as the saying goes), “what gets measured gets done,” we sometimes get so narrow in how we’re measuring success that we limit our own innovation potential. When we do, innovation becomes limited to certain activities managed by a small group of people in a handful of functions. And the thing you know, innovation in a company ceases to be about customers, markets, people, and potential. Instead, it becomes about things and checklists that may or may not relate to inspiring new thinking and creating new value for customers and markets.

In the same way that we try to pinpoint innovation on the technology we use or the things we produce, we also try to contain the idea of innovation with definitions. While framing the idea with words isn’t perfect, it gets us closer to thinking about innovation as an intangible, rather than a tangible. One simple line in the dictionary I like is this:

Innovation is “the introduction of something new.”

With this idea in mind, ‘something new’ can be technology, product, or service. It also can be a new process, a new brand, a new approach, or a new compensation plan. It can be a new strategy, a new business model, or a new talent strategy. It can also be a new song, a new TV show, or new music.

Building on this idea, I like to think about innovation as “being able to dream and make those dreams a reality.” When you break down that explanation, there are two parts to innovation.

  1. What is the idea (the dream)
  2. Can you deliver that idea (make it a reality)

Being able to dream takes creativity, strategy, and a customer-centered mindset. Making it a reality is about delivering a process and making change. Both sides of the equation are necessary to see that innovation is bigger than a product, code, or thing. It is a mindset.

As I thought back on my chance meeting with Dan Cathy at SXSW, I realized that Chick-fil-A often doesn’t get the credit it deserves as an incredibly innovative company. They actually describe themselves as an innovation company that happens to make chicken. They ‘invented the chicken sandwich’ and continually introduce new kinds of food we love. Where their real innovation lies, though, is their vow, “It’s my pleasure.” They have perfected an incredible customer experience, and they’re known for it around the world because they execute the promise flawlessly at every store and on their mobile app.

The innovation mindset that Chick-fil-A lives out across the organization is bigger than a new product metric and broader than being tech-enabled. It’s harder to measure, but I would argue that it’s the same drive that has helped positioned product companies like Spanx and Walker Brands, or tech companies like Mailchimp and Apple as innovation leaders in their industries.

This connection between ideas and execution is why I love comparing the making of movies to innovating in business. A movie is a manifestation of a vision or dream that a writer, producer, and director had for an entertaining and inspiring deliverable. Their ‘product’ starts with an idea and emerges through a balance of art and science to become something that millions of people pay money to see. Success is fueled by the creative and innovative mindset brought forward by the producer, writer, or director. When it is done very well, with the right balance and inspiration, those dreams become a reality.

In the many innovative companies shaping our marketplace, a leader grows an innovative mindset within the company. At Chick-fil-A, Dan Cathy guides a mindset that creates a culture of innovation that extends beyond the Hatch and to every store they operate. In the same way, Sara Blakely imbues her team at Spanx with the inspiration and resources to keep reinventing apparel while building trust and connection with her brand.

Even in a tech company, mindset is essential fuel for continual innovation. Mailchimp is rooted in creativity, and it constantly advances the products and services it offers, as well as the customer experience they provide. At its heart is a culture that is carefully shaped and curated by CEO and co-founder Ben Chestnut. His innovation mindset empowers the entire organization to expand how they think about every aspect of the company, from the products they put into the market to the way they run human resources in house.

If we try to limit how we define innovation or what qualifies, we work against the very thing we’re trying to harness. Innovation is clearly part of how companies create new services and products. But it should also be how a company evolves its strategy and shapes its culture.

When it’s allowed to become a mindset, innovation becomes sustainable. It evolves how people think, which in turn shapes how their organizations evolve.

Innovation is about people.

Innovation is about empowerment.

Innovation is constant.

Innovation produces outcomes — it is not defined by the outcomes.

Innovation happens in the intangible, not just the tangible. It is more about the mindset that leads to producing the innovative things we consume or experience.

How are you tapping into yours to make dreams into realities?

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Innovation, brand, and corporate strategist with more than 25 years of experience in corporate, entrepreneurial, and civic roles. @disruptorstudio @atlchamber

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