Shivi: First of all, thanks much for accepting my request to share your experience about working on one of your innovative ideas! I'm sure your insights will help the readers of the article understand and relate to the concepts much better. Thank you so much!
Syed: Yeah, thanks for inviting me. I hope I'm able to share some valuable details.
Shivi: Sure! Let's get started then?
Shivi: OK! Could you just briefly describe the problem that you faced? What actually triggered the idea in the first place?
Syed: OK! So we have builds for product documentation that transform DITA sources to XHTML and then deploy them to the server. Depending on the size of the documentation, on an average, the soonest a build completes is after around 3 hours from the start time. Even if it is only a minor change, say for example, fixing a DITA error, the build will need to go through the complete cycle, because it replicates everything that is in the repository and then starts transforming the files. To give you another scenario, if you work for a product that is in the maintenance mode, the updates are very little. You don't want the build to take its own sweet time building just those minor changes and consume server resources that could have otherwise been well utilised by the other doc builds.
Shivi: Ah OK! That sounds like an interesting scenario! So then what was the solution that you proposed? Could you explain how you went about framing it?
Syed: Right! So, internally, our documentation is modularised in to plugins or folders, what you call it externally. For translation purposes, we also have the capability to build a single plugin locally. The local build uses the same script that is on the server. So, the solution was that you yourself build the plugin locally, of course making sure that the plugin is error-free, and deploy the output, that is a single JAR file, to the server all by yourself. So I had to collaborate with the build rep to implement the solution.
Shivi: Ah OK, that's really cool! Could you elaborate a bit about the ways in which this idea of yours proved beneficial?
Syed: Sure! Most of the products that are in the maintenance mode make use of this process, thus releasing crucial server resources for other products. Also, in crunch times, such as just before eGA or translation freeze, we have now the ability to refresh documentation just in time.
Shivi: Haan, that sounds great! I'm sure you felt so happy and excited after the idea was accepted for implementation?
Syed: Absolutely! It feels really great to not just follow what has been happening in the org, but to identify the problems and come out with simple, innovative solutions that save time, money, and effort.
Shivi: Oh yeah, I couldn't agree more. Thank you again for taking the time out to share your experience with us, Syed! Much appreciated!
You have attended umpteen sessions that highlighted the importance of innovation and how to go about filing disclosures. Your manager has enlightened you and your team on the various rewarding aspects of innovation and how being innovative impacts businesses [aha, and your appraisals?] But hold on - are you sure you've got the fundamentals right?
How do you, at a personal level, approach the whole notion of innovation?
How do you become an innovator?
What should you do to stay innovative?
When you discover your idea wasn't so new after all, what can you do to keep yourself motivated?
If you are the one who is seeking answers to these questions, this article is for you! This article is a compilation of facts based on my own experience, and some great practical tips that I've received from my colleagues. Read on - you'd be surprised to learn that it is a lot easier to develop that "innovation mindset" than you'd have ever imagined!
Why innovate at all?
In simple terms, you innovate because it helps you stand out in the crowd. Innovation is key to determining what sets a company apart from its competitors. Innovation is vital to the continued success of a business, no matter how strong and efficient the company's workforce is. Put yourself in your user's shoes and answer this question - would you prefer a product that offers innovative features and makes your life easier, or one that is stagnant and prone to becoming obsolete fast? On a lighter note, the whole process of innovation could be so much fun, especially when you have truly encouraging people around you - I can vouch for it!
Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.
- Steve Jobs
Well, I'm totally blank - where do I start from?
So, maybe you do acknowledge that innovation is critical in the current market-driven environment but how do you even get started?
Look for problems in whatever you do.
No human is perfect, nor is a technical system or a piece of software. The more problematic the system is, the larger the scope for innovation. Start with a problem. For most of us, the user advocates, this step should be fairly easy, because we already possess proven skills to identify user pain points and empathize with them. Just be mindful of the fact that ideas can come from anywhere. If you have isolated an actual problem, your thoughts around it are so strong they will just not let you sleep - and the idea you come up with to solve it could be a potential innovation. Your idea need not necessarily focus on a product, but even on the processes themselves that are used to develop and deliver it. Listen to this interview with Syed Attaullah, a technical writer with IBM, who explains how he spotted a problem in the process that his team was following, and then implemented an idea that not only solved it but also helped save a lot of time, effort, and costs.
Interview with Syed Attaullah
You might often get more than one idea to solve a problem, and that is a good sign. Nonetheless, make sure not to get over-anxious or feel stressed along the process.
Make it a habit, not a deliberate attempt.
For me, this is the most important tenet of innovation. Do not innovate just for the heck of it. Do not innovate because someone told you to. Do not innovate because a colleague did. Innovate because YOU really want to. Make "thinking" part of your daily routine. As you continue to practice the act of thinking, it becomes more of a habit. When thinking becomes a habit, the act of innovation becomes simple and effortless. In a nutshell, you just got to be alert and have the mindset to look at things a bit differently.
A great thought begins by seeing something differently, with a shift of the mind's eye.
- Albert Einstein
Let me give you an example. Most of us would have been in a similar situation sometime or the other: You are using an electronic version of a product's user manual, supposedly the most recent version, to achieve a specific goal. At some point, you realise that the screenshots used in the documentation hardly match what you actually see on the product UI, and that impedes your progress. As you uncover more such discrepancies, it gets so frustrating that you feel like screaming and saying "@#$*". Voila! A problem is identified! Providing feedback to the product owners and getting them to revise the graphics in an upcoming release is definitely a solution, but it hardly qualifies as being 'different' or 'permanent' - agreed? OK, now let us look at it a bit 'differently' -how would you like it if the screenshots updated themselves upon installation of the software or dynamically when you are actually using the manual? That sounds pretty cool, does it not? This is the 'innovative' bent that I am talking about, the bent that will always push you to go that extra mile, like it did in the case of Brian Bauman et al. And the result? A patent: Creating documentation screenshots on demand!
Here is another example of how thinking differently pays off: System and method for printing a user guide for a product.
OK, I think I have new ideas - what's next?
Dare to discuss!
OK, you have a new idea - how do you take it forward? Keep refining your idea until you are convinced that there is some "newness" about the idea. Write it down. Dare to discuss it with people - be it your colleagues, friends, or family - no matter how stupid you personally think it sounds at first. It is nonetheless absolutely critical that the people you choose to discuss your ideas with are trustworthy. Ensure that they approach your ideas diligently and in a way not to disregard the sincere efforts that have gone in.
The man with a new idea is a crank - until the idea succeeds.
- Mark Twain
In my experience, people who truly want to see you succeed will go to any extent to help you - they offer insights into how the idea could further be enhanced so that there's real value in it. Be open to constructive criticism. Even more importantly, learn to ignore any remarks that might cause your basic enthusiasm to diminish, and simply move on.
Ideas are failing you? No worries!
It may so happen that you find out slightly later in the process that the implementation of your idea already exists in some form but you were not aware of it up until then. That's perfectly fine - consider it a new learning. It could be something that might improve your productivity or completely transform the way you do certain things. Try to squeeze the best out of the lessons learnt.
A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.
- Albert Einstein
Here are some of the reasons why your idea failed:
Difficulty in turning the idea into an actionable item.
Implementation of the idea involves practical constraints.
The idea is not technically feasible.
The scalability of the idea is limited or nil.
Be it whatsoever, feeling dejected at the drop of ideas-that-you-thought-were-new is not a recipe for innovation! Don't ever give up!
In a nutshell, ideating is not a trait that is reserved for elite groups. Every single person has ideas but not everyone gives them serious thought. You might find it a bit hard to believe, but innovation does help one keep the mind fresh and energetic. Check it out for yourself. The rule for success is very simple - "Acknowledge the ideas, do the research, and get them validated". And yes, be bold and willing to face failures.
I have not failed. I've just found ten thousand ways that won't work.
- Thomas Edison
Alka Acharya and Samartha Vashishtha give a lowdown on how to file patents: You too can patent!