Craig Wynett is the general manager of future growth initiatives at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati.
What we’ve done to encourage innovation is make it ordinary. By that I mean we don’t separate it from the rest of our business. Many companies make innovation front-page news, and all that special attention has a paradoxical effect. By serving it up as something exotic, you isolate it from what’s normal.
Companies don’t trumpet their quality assurance processes or their packaging as special practices because they’re part of the fiber of what they do – they’re ordinary business. The same has to be true of innovation. Too many times we’ve seen corporate innovation programs that are the business equivalent of football’s Hail Mary pass – they start with all kinds of hope and excitement, but in the end they rarely produce results. And why would they?
For innovation to be reliable, it needs to be addressed systematically, like any business issue in which you define the problem and then solve it: What do we want to accomplish, and how? What resources will we need? Who will be on the team? How do we motivate and reward them? And how will we measure success? Today’s most sought-after business talent is the ability to originate. But the perception of the creative process is still based on self-limiting assumptions about eureka light-bulbs flashing over the head of some inspired genius rather than the well-managed diligence of ordinary people. At P&G, we think of creativity not as a mysterious gift of the talented few but as the everyday task of making non-obvious connections – bringing together things that don’t normally go together.
One way to do that is to look at contradictions in the marketplace. For example, we developed a product called ThermaCare, a disposable heating pad that provides regulated low-level heat for at least eight hours. How’d we come up with it? Lots of aging baby boomers out there have all kinds of creaks and muscle twinges. Drugs can treat the pain, but they can also create other problems, like stomach ailments. So you have a contradiction: People don’t want to live with pain, but they don’t want to take painkillers. We saw that contradiction in the market and viewed it as an invitation to create a breakthrough product, one that resolves a paradox without requiring any trade-offs. You can see how opportunities like this can come up in just about any industry. In the telecommunications business, before call waiting, for example, you could either talk on the phone or receive phone calls but not both.
A final word of caution. Isolating innovation from mainstream business can produce a dangerous cultural side effect: Creativity and leadership can be perceived as opposites. This artificial disconnect means that innovators often lack the visibility and clout to compete for the resources necessary for success. Only when innovators operate with the credibility of leaders will innovation become a productive part of everyday business.