I love measuring things and making changes based on measurement. It’s my thing. It’s why I love Web analytics. It’s why I like metrics and charts and graphs and all that.

However, it’s always important to remember that not everything is really well-served by being yoked to a series of key performance indicators. There are new things that no one has ever seen, for example.

True innovation in the tech and real estate industry is something that may not be easily measured and tweaked.

It’s almost as if there are two competing processes at work. On the one hand is data-based decision-making. This process involves you looking at the data you’re generating about how people use your website or engage with you on sites that aren’t your website.

Then you put all that data in context with other data. The final stages of this process are making decisions about what to do and tweaking your Web presence or other online activity based on what you’ve learned.

Data-based decision-making is pretty straightforward and logical. Each step leads on from the previous step. And then the whole thing loops around and you start over.

This tendency to continually make things a little bit better over time is what leads people to refer to this sort of thing as a "continuous improvement process."

But there’s something missing from pretty much everything that can be called a continuous improvement process (or CIP): an on-ramp. You see, the initial phase of CIPs typically requires you to be gathering data on human interaction with something that already exists.

And if you’re starting from scratch — working with a technology like QR (quick response) codes, locative media or new social tools, for example — you don’t have any data to get started.

To start gathering data and using that data to make decisions, you have to launch something. But if you need the data to launch something, you quickly get chicken-and-egg syndrome. This leads us to the other business process: innovation.

Innovation doesn’t typically lend itself continuous improvement processes in the early stages. Sure, once you launch something you can measure the heck out of it and tweak it six ways from Sunday. But if you can’t launch without the data, you might never launch.

Last week’s Real Estate Connect conference was great for me in that it gives me an awesome opportunity to talk with people in the real estate industry who are actively trying to improve their business. In conversations with agents, brokers and their tech partners, I often hear one of the following phrases:

  • "My broker is really slow at adopting/accepting some of these tools."
  • "I really want to integrate more of this location stuff into my website, but the agents really won’t use it anyway."
  • "My tech vendor keeps saying a new feature like this is on the roadmap, but it hasn’t happened. I feel stuck."
  • "My regional management won’t go for this at all, even though I can see how it will make things better."

Ultimately, innovation has more to do with leadership and taking a chance. Sometimes, the chance is too risky. Sometimes, taking a chance is avoided due to inertia.

And the quickest way to kill a new idea that’s never been tried before is to bring up something like "ROI" (return on investment), or some other data-based decision-making concept.

There are, of course, a zillion books on developing processes that foster innovation, and they’re filled with examples and charts and stuff like that. But at the end of the day, if you need to be innovative, you have to make these processes relevant to your business.

If your organization is struggling with innovation — if you want to try new ideas and techniques but seem somehow stuck — here are a couple things that might help:

  • If someone is holding up deployment of something innovative with questions about ROI, spend some time with that person coming up with ways you might measure the success of the project. The person who is concerned with ROI will be invaluable in making your innovation better after it launches.
  • Pick something small to work on first. The real goal of your "small" thing is to figure out what internal processes, permissions, roadblocks and so on exist. Sometimes the roadblocks are external: a tech vendor that doesn’t want you to launch your thing, for example.
  • Set a time limit for "unstructured play" with a new technology. Pick some new thing you want to try and play with it without worrying about what it’s going to do for your business. Put a time limit on this, like a month or two.

The goal of this is to learn the basics of how the technology works, what kinds of things you can do with it, what kinds of things your market is doing with it. At the end of your time limit, then spend some time to figure out how it might be useful for business. If you can’t think of any business use, be ruthless is eliminating the technology from your processes — even if you like it.

Continuous improvement processes are, by nature, focused on eliminating things, making things more efficient, and making small improvements over time. They are processes that are about removing waste.

Innovation processes are, by nature, focused on generating new things, changing the behavior of people and organizations, and making big changes quickly. Innovation processes are about increasing the scope of available resources.

Used together, continuous improvement and innovation processes can help keep your practice moving forward and ahead of the market.

If you use too much "innovation," you run the risk of wasting so many resources that it drives you out of business. If you use too much "continuous improvement" you run the risk of becoming irrelevant.

Take the time to evaluate how you and your organization use innovation and continuous improvement. Then take the time to stretch a little and use more of the other.

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