Skip to content

Innovation Coach

A talk with Tom Koulopoulos, author of The Innovation Zone, about the essential elements of innovation (psst: it’s not about technology).

Feel pressured to adopt new marketing technology and call it innovation? Trying to make a splash in the market when the definition of “new and exciting” keeps changing by the month? Tom Koulopoulos, author of The Innovation Zone and founder of Delphi Group, a technology and business advisory group, offers little comfort:

“It’s going to get harder to keep up with the pace of all this uncertainty and the innovation it demands of us.”

If the word “innovation” makes you cringe, you’re not alone. “We tend to get very critical of innovation talk, in part because we’re surrounded by so many new gadgets and gizmos, let alone the thousands of books and conferences on innovation, we think we must’ve already conquered that mountain.” Or, if we haven’t, we fear there’s something seriously wrong with us–or our company. 

Here’s where Tom does offer comfort. The problem with much of the innovation conversation, he says, is that it either confounds innovation with invention–those one-off events and products that may or may not generate any actual value–or it implies you need superhuman skills to achieve it. Innovation is more about discipline than divine inspiration, claims Tom. “There is no short-cut or single way to innovation. It takes work, consistency and fortitude.”

Innovation is a process, not a product.

Marketing is usually an inherently creative function, but just because you’re creative does not mean you are innovative. “We’re all creative. It’s the essential human condition. The problem is that team dynamics often stifle that creativity,” Tom says. 

“At the heart of innovation is a culture and commitment to the process of innovating. It’s a numbers game. The more people involved and trying, the more ideas make it through the pipeline. The key, then, is to build the pipeline, a path for all ideas in an organization to be heard and evaluated. Otherwise, incremental innovations never add up to anything more than a series of small changes.”

Mind you, because innovation is a process, you can’t replicate it by looking at the end result. (The ‘Fab 15’ featured in this issue may be inspirational, but they won’t give you the keys to innovating at your own company.) “It’s fun to try and show the end state, and it may motivate us to be bolder,” Tom explains; “but innovation is not a mystery novel where you can read ahead.”

The message to marketers: Stop worrying about whether you and your team know the latest and greatest tool or are creative enough. Start investing in your team’s ability to filter opportunities and focus on those that have value.

How? Do you have systems in place for recognizing and rewarding idea owners? Do you have champions who’ll help give the idea a fair shake? Do you have a consistent place to store and track ideas that might not be ready for prime time? Have you come up with some metric–even if it’s subjective and qualitative–to assess the value of a potential idea? If you answered “no” to any or all of these questions, you’ve got some first steps to consider.

(P.S. If you feel like you’re working for a CEO or company who can’t support such a process, Tom says, “High tail it out of there or be forever disappointed to see your good ideas ignored.”)

Innovation is about changing behavior, not adopting the latest technology.

Innovation changes behavior. Technology and all the trappings can certainly influence behavior and support the change, but they’re not the end goal.

Understanding behavior, then, is critical to innovation. Once an adamant believer in market testing and focus groups as lenses to behavior, Tom lost confidence in their ability to help companies be innovative. “As the late management guru Peter Drucker convinced me, you simply cannot expect a market to tell you what it needs if it hasn’t experienced it. We only know what we know.” Today, however, Tom believes that the increasing sophistication of real-time market analytics represents a powerful innovation tool. “If I can react in real time to real-time changes in behavior of my market, then I’ve achieved something incredible: a connection to the most essential aspect of what constitutes meaning to my customer.”

The message to marketers: Be more concerned with the trajectory of behavior–and the experiences you create–than on the trajectory of technology.

It’s measured by value, not volume.

This emphasis on value puts the marketing organization, which is constantly defining what constitutes value to its customers and clients, front and center of innovation. “All too often we see innovation as the function of R&D or technologists. It’s not,” Tom says. “While you need a solid product or service to succeed, the best products and services don’t win. The best marketing does.”

The message to marketers: Get even better at defining and measuring value and meaning.