The question of how to bring innovation to a company is certainly something I spend a lot of time exploring through research and with clients.
With our partner FourSight, we sponsored the Innov8rs Conference for intrapreneurs, conducted global research to answer the question “who are the innovators in organizations?” and found ourselves in six cities across four continents speaking to business leaders, entrepreneurs and members of innovation teams.
Work with an international clientele and participation in the Conference Board of Canada’s Council on Innovation and Commercialization took me to meetings, consultations and trainings in the US, UK and Canada.
Through this varied activity, I got a bird’s eye view into the trials and tribulations of organizations working to innovate. I heard many stories this year about what is and isn’t working in companies when it comes to innovation.
I’ve got a gift for you: I’ve picked five ways to bring innovation to your company, based on my experience from the past year. I hope they inspire you to new levels of innovation performance.
Five ways to bring innovation to a company
1. Define and measure innovation.
In the past year, I attended a lot of meetings, read a lot of case studies and heard a lot of war stories. And in most instances, I noticed that something was obviously missing. What was it?
A definition of innovation.
Also missing was innovation’s sidekick: key performance measures.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to bring innovation into a company if you don’t define what innovation is and what it looks like for your company.
Yes, you can assume what innovation is, and you can pull a definition off the Internet. What many people don’t realize is that innovation is contextual.
So, even with the same standard definition of innovation, what one company needs to do to innovate could be completely different than another.
If you want to bring innovation to a company, you need to put a stake in the ground, contextualize and define innovation, and describe the actions and behaviours you want from your people in the process. And for good measure (sorry, the pun was too tempting), share how you’ll measure impact so that you know you’re getting results on those actions and behaviours.
Without a definition or measures, you’ll get mixed results. Some people will be working hard not knowing if what they are doing is “innovative enough” or on target. Others won’t bother trying because let’s face it, what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done.
2. Find new and better ways to do your work.
Many people are under the impression that innovation is limited to the introduction of new products and technologies. This is known as “revolutionary innovation.” Many people in organizations think that if they aren’t involved with bringing something revolutionary to market, they have no need to bother with innovation.
This is far from the truth.
A good way to bring innovation to a company is to make it a practice to find new and better ways to do your work – continuously. It’s called incremental innovation, and it’s something every organization needs to be doing. Incremental innovation involves smaller internal changes that result in value for the organization, its people and its customers. For example, while revolutionary innovation involves the creation of new technology, incremental innovation could involve the adoption and use of a new technology that results in substantial productivity increases.
Seek opportunities for incremental innovation in places where something bugs you and you wish it were different: that business process that keeps tripping you up, the handoff to another team that never seems to go well, the rework or missed deadlines because something isn’t efficient. The stuff that leaves you shaking your head and asking, “Why?”
These are all good opportunities to ask, “How might we do this better?”
3. Use innovation to respond to change, uncertainty, and constraint.
We live in a VUCA world, one that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. So it stands to reason that many companies are facing change, uncertainty and constraint. Whether by choice or by force, change is a reality. And as organizations figure out how to deal with change, outcomes are uncertain, and there are constraints on people and other resources as they work to build a response to change.
What many of our clients realize is that when faced with change, status quo responses and old ways of working don’t cut it. They need new strategies for getting existing work done, and for adapting to new circumstances and work requirements.
In other words, it’s the perfect time to bring innovation to a company.
There are opportunities to find new and better ways to do work, find and let go of work that should no longer be done, and to learn how to do new work in efficient and productive ways.
In a changing work environment, it’s critical to build resilience to change and to creatively respond to the challenges that come with change. One of the best ways to do this is to teach people creative problem solving as a process for innovation, and set them to work on solving the challenges facing the organization. We do this with our clients using our ThinkUP Innovation Framework™ and teaching the FourSight Thinking System™.
4. Improve how you get ideas.
Many companies have invested in idea management software and run idea challenges. Others use in-person engagement to generate ideas, typically in brainstorming sessions. Regardless of how you go about getting ideas, it’s not as simple as asking people for their ideas. An idea protocol needs to be followed. Otherwise you get ordinary, obvious ideas that lack the novelty necessary for innovation.
You can do a lot towards bringing innovation to a company by implementing an idea protocol that:
- Phrases the challenge for which ideas are needed as an open-ended question stated in the positive
- Gives brainstorming participants the challenge question and contextual information prior to the brainstorming session
- Asks participants to come to the session with a preliminary list of ideas
- Provides clarity on who owns the challenge, the role and expectations of participants in the brainstorming, how their ideas will be used, and who will make decisions about which ideas will be advanced
- Separates thinking in the brainstorming process –
- Divergent thinking is used to generate ideas; it is a broad search for ideas, done without judgment and without constraint
- Convergent thinking is used to select and prioritize ideas; it is a focused effort to screen, select and prioritize ideas using specific decision-making criteria
If your brainstorming sessions aren’t framed using a challenge question, if there are no rules or guidelines around what kind of thinking to do (and when and how), and you don’t know who owns the challenge and what they’ll do with your ideas once they have them, your organization isn’t garnering the value needed to produce innovation.
5. Lighten up.
One common theme I heard this year was that “innovation is the hardest work you’ll ever love.”
The job of an innovator is never easy. It takes a lot of effort and faith to keep moving forward when the outcome is uncertain. Eventually it is rewarding – either through a eureka moment, the silver lining of an unexpected outcome, a quick win, or a win that was a long time coming.
Research by Goran Ekvall in the 1980s uncovered ten dimensions that contribute to a creative work environment, which is necessary for innovation. One of these dimensions is playfulness and humour – the need for spontaneity and fun. If innovation is so hard, you can easily imagine the importance for some levity, playfulness and fun in the process.