Twenty years ago I had a young colleague in Richmond, Virginia who thought a lot about innovation. He was running a boutique branding agency and he was constantly looking for ways to differentiate his clients from the pack. Working together was fun. A trip to his offices meant chocolate cigars, incense, beanbag chairs and a playroom. It meant meetings that were chaotic, kinetic and sometimes frenetic. Brainstorming sessions were totally unpredictable. I was so engaged in what was happening that it took me a while to sit back and see the process that my friend had put in motion. He made it okay to think “strange thoughts.”
I had another colleague in Indianapolis who called her company “The Big Idea Company.” She always found a way to put a twist in her thinking that created unique solutions for her clients. A lot of her big ideas came from seeing connections where others did not.
When the three of us got together on a project, I was definitely the sluggard in the group. But I learned from them and others that innovation takes many forms and reveals itself in many ways. Those that want to have innovation as a core competency in their organizations need to think about the types of innovation desired and what they hope to achieve with it. They then need to consider what conditions need to exist for the innovation to take place.
- “Color inside the lines.”
- “Sit still.”
- “Stay in your seats.”
- “Don’t shout out the answer.”
This process continued through high school and beyond. Many would say they are not innovative, when, in fact, their desire and ability to innovative has just been buried by years of negative reinforcement. In many instances, even going to work for an innovative entrepreneur can be a stifling experience, as the entrepreneur wants to own innovation and wants his employees to just “do the work.”
So now, American business is waking up to the fact that innovation is no longer a differentiator. It is a critical success factor. What are the big thoughts owners need to think in order to jump on the innovation bandwagon?
- Innovation requires freedom. This means freedom to think, to experiment and to fail. It means that the organizational culture allows employees room to fail without punishment. This doesn’t mean anarchy and no rules. It means creating a safe environment for people to expand their thinking without fear- fear of criticism, derision or punishment.
- Innovation requires definition. Employees need to understand that innovation is not totally unstructured and that it is tethered to realistic expectations. It needs to serve a purpose that puts the company in a better position to serve customers, support employees and build sustainability.
- Innovation has a cost. Time spent working on new ideas, on experimenting and in failing has a cost, which may be a new cost to the organization. Costs without immediate revenues attached to them impact the bottom line. Owners need to know that, be prepared for it and commit to keeping innovation going. But they also need to manage that risk. Innovation without ROI is not an answer. Pharmaceutical companies know they may spend billions on R&D before seeing revenue from a new drug. Smaller companies need to understand how to gauge their time for ROI.
- Innovation takes many forms. Innovation can be about product design, how services are delivered, how concepts are understand. It can be incremental or it can be disruptive. Using a baseball analogy, it can be a lot of singles or a grand slam home run. Just remember that most home run hitters strike out a lot.
- Innovation can be contagious. If individuals are rewarded for innovative ideas, it will encourage other workers to come up with them. If workers see their boss take the ideas of others and implement them without giving due credit, the opposite will happen.
- Innovation requires leadership. Business owners need to be cheerleaders for innovation. They have to support the behaviors and attitudes that lead to innovation. They need to listen to their employees. They need to listen to their customers and other stakeholders. They need to care about what others say about their products and services and put their teams to work solving any shortcomings in new and innovative ways. That means they need to be open to new ways of problem solving- cross-functional teams, external opinions, crowdsourcing of ideas, etc. Being open to new ways of trying to solve problems is really important.
- Innovation should be fun. Yes, it is still work, but it should be fun work. Don’t make it into something negative that turns people away from it. Fun could be an Innovation Room with a crazy name that is different from typical office space, with walls that can be written upon or unusual tools that get the mind working. It could be a “pop up” space off site, or guest speakers or facilitators who get thoughts flowing.
Innovative leaders foster innovation within their organizations. They allow it to grow and they nurture it. They look for new and innovative ways to give their teams the “space” they need to innovate. That can be “head space”, a physical space or a cultural space. It could be all three. Innovative leaders need to help workers be innovative in a way that helps grow and sustain the enterprise.