“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.’” – Steve Jobs
Whether it’s creating an entirely new product category, like Uber, or a fresh new service like Amazon Prime, innovation is a key component for business success.
An innovative approach to problem solving, product creation and operations help companies to disrupt, lead, stay competitive, create whole new sectors and spot lucrative opportunities.
But while being innovative is essential for businesses, it’s also very difficult to achieve.
A 2013 study from Accenture showed that out of 519 executives in the U.S., U.K. and France, less than one out of every five believed their company’s investments in innovation were paying off.
Innovation is a complex puzzle for which are there many pieces and each company needs to develop their own approach. Here’s a look at some pieces to help ensure that innovation becomes a core part of your company.
Creating a culture of innovation
To succeed, innovation needs to be built into the very DNA of a company.
Innovation needs to be cultivated from the top down, permeated into every level and become an essential part of company culture: its beliefs, expectations and sense of purpose.
While many might think that company culture is a ‘nice-to-have’ to consider after real business has been concluded, it’s a vital component for innovation.
Creative thinking and attitudes can either be encouraged and rewarded, or discourage in many different ways. The more they are encouraged and the more fundamental they are to a business, the more innovative the thinking will become.
Creating a culture that celebrates and promotes left-brained skills such as creativity, imagination and empathy will help ensure you have the correct ingredients for innovation that complement the more traditional right-brained skills usually found in the workplace.
Similarly, placing innovation at the heart of your company mission will inspire employees to try to be more innovative, and empower them to think and act differently without fear of negative repercussions.
Creating an innovative environment
In addition to having a culture of innovation, there are a number of attributes and organizational approaches that many innovative companies share.
Instead of creating a silo-ed organization with set roles and even dedicated ‘innovation’ teams, many innovative companies create structures with fluid teams that are able to evolve as new projects or ideas develop.
The lack of set structure allows for innovation at an organization level. Development teams can become growth hackers, marketers can start working on product, and a variety of different employees can come together as needed.
Attributes for Innovation
Similarly, there are a number of attributes that you can foster at your organization by adopting certain practices, structures and mentalities that will be very important in helping you cultivate innovation:
Connect with and listen to both your internal and external community. Both can potentially offer extremely valuable insights and ideas that generate new innovations.
Great ideas can come from anywhere. Being open-minded can allow you to get innovation from all corners of your company and develop even seemingly ridiculous ideas into great products.
Innovation is not something that is done alone or in a walled garden. Collaborating with external groups such as other companies, universities or think tanks can help bring fresh perspectives and innovative new thinking.
Introducing a flat management structure reduces the approval time and long lines of communication that can hamper innovation. If you can’t go flat, giving workers the ability and resources to work independently can produce a similar result.
Failing fast and often can be a great way to increase development speeds and help create new products. Additionally, many innovations have historically been the result of failures, from penicillin to microwaves.
Act like an innovator
Not everyone is naturally innovative. The good news is that even if you’re not, you can cultivate it. The Innovator’s DNA has interviewed hundreds of innovators and nearly 5,000 executives in a bid to identify their shared characteristics.
According to their research, innovators think and act differently. Consistent patterns of behavior have led to the identification of five keys skills that support innovation:
By focusing on encouraging these skills in your employees, you can also help to foster their innovation.
Balance creativity and innovation with process and structure
It’s all very well coming up with innovative ideas but these ideas also need to be developed.
Once a problem has been clearly defined – an important consideration as an innovative solution to a problem no one has isn’t much help – the main steps for innovation are brainstorming ideas and deciding what to pursue.
It’s natural for humans to see flaws in ideas, so it’s crucial to not allow criticism during the brainstorming process. The design firm IDEO, for example, asks participants to come up with 150 ideas in under 45 minutes when brainstorming. With such a short time and large quota even wild ideas are included and it’s only after a session that they’re critically evaluated.
Once some very promising ideas have emerged, it’s also crucial to have the right processes and people in place to develop those ideas and interface with their creators. Effective prototyping and testing is key for developing the seeds of innovation and process the need to coexist and be managed together to produce results.
Maintaining innovation when you grow
While many companies might start off small, agile and innovative, keeping that creativity as they grow can be a challenge. More employees, departments, defined roles, ingrained processes and fixed hierarchies can all combine to make it difficult to innovate.
But it’s not impossible. By putting innovation at the heart of company culture and ensuring they have the right processes to foster it, companies of any size can innovate:
Google is a great example of a very large corporation that innovates in many different markets on a regular basis. According to Susan Wojcicki, Google’s Senior Vice President of Advertising, the company has eight principles to keep that innovation flowing:
- Have a mission that matters
- Think big but start small
- Strive for continual innovation, not instant perfection
- Look for ideas everywhere
- Share everything
- Spark with imagination, fuel with data
- Be a platform
- Never fail to fail
Putting innovation at the center of strategy at all levels of business can also be very effective. A pyramid approach to innovation can be adopted, with large, innovative projects at the top, potentially innovative projects being developed in the middle and many continuous improvements or early stage ideas at the bottom.
Verizon, for example, had large innovation projects with Android for Smartphones and fiber optics for landlines and is developing projects with GM’s Onstar in the area of cloud computing. The company also develops what CEO Lowell McAdam calls small “pots of gold”, in everything from the traditional landline business to process innovations for technicians. In many instances, they have defined job roles around innovation and make it a requirement.
Chemicals firm 3M was one of the first businesses to allow employees to spend a proportion of their time (15%) on pet projects. This flexible and creative approach helps to attract the best talent while the projects themselves have also produced some of 3M’s most successful products, including the Post-it note.
Gillette understands that recognizing and rewarding innovation in every part of the company helps to create an agile, creative and innovative work culture. Gillette’s innovation fair encourages every department to show off their most promising new ideas. From ethics programs from the legal department to a new shaving system for women, it’s a great example of a process that fosters innovation.
Whether you’re a SME or a large corporation, having the right processes, culture and attitudes in place can help ensure that innovation is a key component of your business.
Coming up with and developing innovative ideas requires significant support and collaboration. In the right environment, individuals and teams can be encouraged to seize chances, think differently and have the courage to try, fail and very occasionally innovate.