Here’s Why Innovation Works Best When It Is Extreme

Extreme Innovation is about pushing things as far out as you can and then pushing some more. Often, we find that challenging the status quo requires us to be genuinely different and original.

Successful innovation means mining the extremes for new ideas and demands fearlessness of the discomfort we all feel when teetering on the edge of what is possible, explains Victoria Harrison-Mirauer, Founder a The Ideas Machine.

Organisations are built to squash ideas

The funny thing about innovation is that many organisations strive to achieve it, but by their very nature end up stifling the very best and game-changing ideas. After many years running innovation projects for clients, I can’t remember a single one where an organisation’s internal conservatism did not dampen down the project results, recommendations and subsequent action. In the majority of cases the force of the status quo, and a ‘that’s-how-we’ve-always-done-it’ mentality are powerful enemies when trying to encourage people to both think and work differently.

One client, now chairman of a major UK retailer, once said that we should never tailor any of our findings or recommendations to be more ‘acceptable’. He said, “We’ll force these ideas into an ‘us-shaped’ hole by ourselves”. This taught me an important lesson early on in my innovation career, that extreme solutions are useful -in fact they are necessary- because attempts to do things differently get bashed around and compromised at every stage of their journey through the minefields of organisation process and politics. Another client recently asked the leader of a top accelerator in San Francisco how to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship in his  own organisation, the reply, ‘Just don’t kill it’. Given this challenging environment, it is unsurprising that so few ideas are able to make it through.

Extreme users offer unique insights for innovators

To cite an example, design firm Ideo champions a ‘design thinking’ approach to innovation, one which is human-centred. They talk a lot about focussing on ‘extreme users’ in the design thinking process. Having used a similar methodology hundreds of times I can see why Ideo emphasise this need to innovate at the ‘extreme’ so much.  It is very hard to design something genuinely new and useful if you start off trying by to meet the needs of everyone in the middle of your market. That leaves you with a very long, rather generic list of criteria. Even in cases where you need to devise a product or service with mass appeal, starting with a ‘mass’ brief really isn’t helpful.

Trying to spot what’s unique, interesting, innovative if you try to take into account the behaviour of large segments of people is the definition of seeking a needle in a haystack. On the other hand, if you pick an archetype, an extreme user, someone who is absolutely passionate about or a total rejector in the field you are looking to innovate around, you’ll find out more that is of interest, more quickly.

Hunting at the extreme offers competitive advantage

Hunting for insights at the extremes of your customer spectrum helps you to identify new needs to serve, and to spot the ‘stand out’ behaviour from which unique ideas blossom. The likelihood is, if you are genuinely at the extreme, you’ll be working with data points your competitors haven’t spotted and will no longer be fishing the same pond. Innovation is a highly competitive sport, it stands to reason those who are prepared to go further, to look harder, to explore at the extremes find the gold that others miss. Google’s exponential innovation team calls its extreme programmes ‘moonshots’; these programmes have truly world-changing ambitions.

Extreme innovation demands fearless leadership

Challenging the status quo is extremely difficult and we see over and over again that much innovation fails. Making innovation happen requires leaders with a readiness for a journey of discovery, and an appetite go to the extremes in pursuit of originality. If your organisation is genuinely seeking to break new ground, you need to counter the discomfort of the unknown with a massive dose of fearlessness.  Fearlessness helps counter the squeamishness we all feel when we are at the edge of what is possible. The rewards are plentiful, only those who go that bit further get ideas beyond the obvious ones everyone has already had. In a context where no industry is immune to disruption, and leaders need more from their innovation efforts, they need to be brave enough go to the extremes to get it.

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