Businesses are terrible at innovating. Sure, recruiters promise innovative jobs, companies claim to sell innovative merchandise, and shareholders rave about innovation. But most of these promises are hollow. (And deep down, we all know it.)
That spells trouble for anyone competing in a well-established market space. You can’t be a little bit different or a little bit better. You have to stand head-and-shoulders above the crowd. And that requires a metric ton of creative thinking – everywhere from the development of your product or service to marketing to customer relations.
It’s not that we don’t try. We just can’t seem to get out of our own way. To go from being innovation blockers to facilitators we need to change the way we think about people, places, and paraphernalia.
Myth #1: only a blessed few have the capacity for innovation
Organizations often buy into the notion that only a handful of the population are pioneers – the ones worth listening to – while the rest are followers. Rubbish. Innovation exists in everyone. Sadly, we spend most of our lives so controlled and so fearful of failure that we learn to suppress it.
Innovation is simply patterning recognition plus the ability to recognize an opportunity. Patterns occur everywhere in your business, not just at the C-level: from customers’ behaviour patterns to internal process patterns.
Given this, it makes no sense to control who gets to innovate. Executives bring a wealth of experience, but because they have the most to lose, hesitate to offer genuinely fresh ideas. Lower-level employees, on the other hand, work on the front lines and interact with customers the most. Their ideas may be the most in tune with what the company needs to move forward.
Myth #2: innovation happens in a vacuum
Do you have an innovation room or innovation lab? Are whiteboards, pens, and sticky notes strewn across your office at random? I once worked with an organization who converted a meeting room next to their CFO’s office into an innovation lab. Nobody used it or even dared to go near it. It turns out the CFO would regularly ask those who considered using the lab “Have you got no actual work to do?”
Physical space is rarely what blocks innovation. If innovation only gets lip service, dedicated rooms won’t change anything.
Be thoughtful about how you prioritize innovation. Investing in helping people learn (think retrospective meetings and reimbursement for outside training or tuition) will do more to foster innovation than an abandoned room with whiteboards. Ditto secondment programs in which employees spend 6 months on a different team or in a different office.
Myth #3: it’s all about the swag
When I say you should prioritize innovation, I don’t mean putting up posters, handing out “Innov8” mugs, and printing out t-shirts for the Innovation Counsel™ (or committee, or forum, if you prefer). The optics are lovely when the Board of Directors walks through or when candidates are interviewing, yes. But posters and mugs are merely distractions.
Give people time instead of trinkets. It can come in the form of “20% time” for individuals, an innovation week for individual teams, or even a 24-hour company-wide hackathon. Allow people to think freely and deeply and uninterrupted. Then watch what happens.
Fostering a culture of innovation
Opening up opportunities is the first step towards innovation. Applying the philosophy of openness to all aspects of a business is the next. Great ideas emerge when people engage in open dialogues where they don’t have to be afraid to share new, risky ideas. Of course, having employees speak up means nothing if no one hears them, so make sure you’re listening.
Transparent information is important, too. Give people visibility into what different departments are working on through internal social media, wiki tools, and company town halls so people can build on each other’s efforts instead of duplicating them.
Innovation isn’t always a massive mind-blowing project, nor is it always something your customers see. It can be as simple as a process improvement that paves the way for customer-facing ideas to get out the door faster and better.
If you’re serious about innovation, open up communication and the flow of information between people with different job titles, experiences, and identities. Embrace cognitive diversity. Build a culture that doesn’t just say it prioritizes forward-thinking but one that actually invests time and meaningful resources in it.