As a half-Japanese/half-Caucasian American, I’m sitting there yesterday snacking on a package of dried seaweed (nori in Japanese), because – who doesn’t do that? And my kids are eating popcorn. I think to myself, I wonder if wrapping popcorn in the piece of nori would be delicious? Of course, I can’t get it to wrap like sticky rice would. I just kind of take a giant bite of nori and popcorn all at once. So I try it, and it is delish! I google it see if anyone else has come up with this idea before me. I see that a few companies already thought of this delicious concoction and are selling it for $45 per bag. Whoa! That is a lot more $$$ that a standard bag of popcorn. That is what we call innovation & differentiation, my friends. And when you have that, you can charge a price premium.

Innovation is critical in proposals. You can speak directly to your customers’ pain points through your innovation strategy. It’s also important to innovate after you win the program. Because if you try to tell an innovation story in your re-compete proposal, and you haven’t delivered that on the contract, it won’t be credible.

Idea #1: Diverse team

So let me ask you, do you ever struggle with innovation or, differentiation your proposals? If so, do you draw from a diverse team? When the team, particularly leadership are from very similar backgrounds and upbringings, it’s hard to get outside of the status quo. How do you ever expect to be innovative if you’re in an echo chamber of shared experiences? As I sit here, I can brainstorm a handful of aspects of other cultures to draw from and add to an innovation strategy and begin to implement immediately. How about you?

And there is historical precedence for this too. The Silk Road trade route stretched from Greece to China in the 1st and 2nd centuries BC and many innovations emerged from it, including gunpowder, the magnetic compass, the printing press, silk, mathematics, ceramic and lacquer crafts.

When I lived in Japan, they actually understood the importance of cultural exchange and I believe that is an important aspect to their success as innovators. The Japanese were trying to share their culture with the world, and the Japan Exchange & Teaching (JET) Program I participated in demonstrated that — investing tax payer yen in thousands of teachers from all over the English-speaking world to teach in Japanese public schools and work in local government. When I worked for the Mayor’s office in the City of Takikawa, Japan, they hosted 2 separate delegations from Pakistan and Malawi to teach them about Japanese industries, systems, and culture, and we also learned from them.

Our customers come from diverse backgrounds and they’re craving innovation. Are you drawing from a diverse team so that you can bring your customers the most out-of-the-box solutions?

Idea # 2: Diverse industries

Want to hear my 2nd practice I use as part of my secret weapon to being innovative and an “idea machine”?

Not only do I draw from a diverse set of PEOPLE to generate innovative ideas. I also draw innovative ideas from DIVERSE INDUSTRIES — not just the one I’m in. I seek inspiration for innovation in my solutions from industry-leading brands with strong differentiation and see how I can apply their “secret sauce” to what I’m doing. As one example, read up on the Ritz Carlton’s renowned customer service one day. What can you glean from their model and apply as an innovation to the way you’re currently delivering customer service?

One extremely interesting open source framework for fostering innovation and creating “intrepreneurs” inside of a company is called Kickbox. Definitely check this out. If we did this within one of my companies, I would be all over it!

Idea #3: Culture of innovation

There are 2 main types of innovation:

1) Continuous, iterative improvement and

2) Disruptive innovation.

I’m mainly referring to the former, but definitely look into both types! I’m a mere baby in the field of innovation, admittedly. If you want to learn from the best of the best on innovation, I’ll refer you to Clayton Christensen, specifically his book: The Innovator’s Solution.

But the last thing I want to leave you with is this. Most people think innovation is all about process and ideas — and all you need is to understand the process, or learn some new methodology, in order to come up with innovative ideas, and be innovative. And I get why you believe this, because that is the belief being peddled in the HBR case studies and the glossy business books. But if it were just about replicating a process and other company’s successes, why is “being innovative” so elusive? Shouldn’t we all be able to read a book, or learn a process and instantly be innovative? Well clearly that isn’t true. Because it seems only the top 1% of companies really get it. We all know that innovation comes from an internal belief that there is a better way to do things, which eventually turns into an idea. Unfortunately the person with that idea is a human. Humans have deep fears of being rejected, or deemed inadequate. So unless that person is able to overcome their fear, that innovative idea will live forever inside of the mind, and never see the light of day. So if you want innovation, you must create a culture where you empower people to speak up about their ideas of how to do things better, and eliminate the fear of rejection, failure, or judgment. And if you don’t do that, you’re killing innovation in your organization and ceding work to your competition.