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Everyday Innovation Can Produce Big Results

03/25/2015 03:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2015

thumbnailSo many companies get obsessed with scoring the next big innovation. Of course we're all hungry to find that next giant disruptive idea that will revolutionize our industry. However, how often can you truly expect that big stroke of genius to happen? Once every two years, once a year at the very most? In addition, most employees of large and midsize companies don't feel they are capable of coming up with the next Big Innovation and assume others are working on this so they go about their tasks failing to innovate. Speaking of mindsets and culture, can you expect such a huge leap to come if you don't have a culture in your organization that fosters innovation and rewards it? In truth, the type of innovation that we need most is not the big innovation that happens in dramatic bursts every now and then. What we need most is everyday innovation.

Why do we need everyday innovation most? Because big innovation happens more often within a culture that fosters everyday innovation. So creating everyday innovation in your organization needs to be your first priority. The type of innovations that we most need in order to lay the foundation for the giant disruptive leaps are small everyday advances and innovative solutions to everyday problems that create an inventive, anticipatory business culture.

As I work with leaders of the largest companies in a variety of industries from the Fortune 500, what they say they want most is everyday innovation.

Use Everyday Innovation to Uncover Your Real Problems

One of the best ways to create a culture of everyday innovation is to teach your people to identify the real problem. If the people in your organization could see past the seeming insurmountable obstacles balking progress, they might find that their actual problem is something they have entirely missed.

For example, as I discuss in my bestselling book Flash Foresight in the chapter on the principle of "Take Your Biggest Problem and Skip It," the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly knew that, as their patent on the lucrative Prozac was set to expire, it needed to create new drugs needed to bolster its stock prices. In order to do so, they believed that they had to hire at least a thousand more researchers with PhDs. The problem was that they didn't have the budget for that. Right? No. What Eli Lilly really needed were not more PhD researchers on staff, but more innovative solutions to molecular problems. The challenge was not "How can we staff our operation?" but "How can we solve these molecular problems and create new drugs?"

So Eli Lilly found that they could solve their real problem by crowdsourcing the answers to their molecular questions. They discovered that they actually didn't need to hire any more researchers at all! In other words, they saw past what seemed like their big problem ("we need more PhDs") and just got to the real solution that they needed to their real problem ("we need to accelerate the creation of new wonder drugs.")

Everyday Innovation and Paying Attention to Hard Trends

Another important thing to realize is that many of your future problems are predictable. If you teach your employees to spot the Hard Trends, you can teach them to anticipate challenges and find solutions before problems arise. Hard Trends are an important concept that I've discussed frequently in my books and consulting work. Hard Trends will happen versus Soft Trends that might happen.  Think of a Hard Trend as a current of change that's moving irrevocably in one direction at an exponential rate. A Hard Trend is inevitable: it's closely tied to an undeniable and propulsive force, like time or technological advancement, rather than the tastes of the moment or the flukes of chance.

When everyone in your organization knows how to see Hard Trends, then they're able to predict problems before they blow up. In other words, when you spot the hard trends that affect your industry (and they are there), then you're able to have an organization that's anticipatory rather than reactive. When we address problems before they arise, the damage they cause is mitigated or avoided altogether. Employees spend less time playing catch-up or doing damage control and have more time for their work and costs go down. Problems are expensive to have and to solve.

Getting in the Mindset of Everyday Innovation

The mindset of everyday innovation has to start with the leaders of the organization and then trickle down to every level. How can you instill a sense of common purpose and common practice? It is immeasurably helpful for everyone in your company to understand and share the same Futureview.

Futureview is a vision of what you're inwardly certain the future is going to be like. It's not what you wish for or what you hope for. It's not your rosy "vision statement" -- it's what you actually believe the future is going to be like.

If leaders don't have a genuinely solid, clear, and compelling futureview -- guess what? No one else in their organization will, and they will find it increasingly difficult to focus innovation to increase results. Instead they will have a culture that is risk averse, a culture of playing it safe, and a culture of sticking to tradition rather than coming up with fresh new actionable ideas and insights.

Everyday innovation should be praised, celebrated, and rewarded, instead of, as is most often the case, it can be subtly discouraged. It's your job as a leader to teach it, to spot it when it's there, and to reward it.

Here are some of the fallacies leaders might say in a non-innovative environment:

  • "There is no extra time for generating new ideas."
  • "Sure we'd like some new ideas but I'm paid to my numbers on existing business."
  • "Let's let our existing process play out for at least a year before we try to find the next big thing."
  • "It's true that Jane in the marketing department had an idea that we thought was great, but it didn't really work out, did it? We need to let her know she should stick with what works rather than trying something new."

Those are the kind of thoughts that demonstrate you actually have a tired, limited Futureview, even if your "vision statement" is bold and grand. And your employees are going to pick up on your culture of stasis and fear.

So it's absolutely crucial to realize this: You Get The Behaviors You Reward. Is your culture risk averse? Do you reward playing safe? You may not think that you reward timidity -- after all, no leader wakes up in the morning and says: "I'm going to make sure my people know it's not okay to take risks!" But I want you to really think about it: do your employees fear failure so much that it stifles their capacity to think outside the box? Do they receive disapproval and disrespect if they try something new and it doesn't immediately work? If your employees feel punished or shamed for "failure," then they have no incentive to take risks.

And consider this: does your organization provide support and approval for employees who do practice everyday innovation? Are your everyday innovators recognized and rewarded?

In Conclusion

It's crucial that the culture at your organization fosters and practices everyday innovation. Learn to find inventive solutions to everyday problems , to know how to spot the real problem, and anticipate changes to your industry every day, and recognize the people who do practice these techniques. This kind of innovation doesn't have the allure of something like Edison's light bulb, and they may not write cover stories about it and they certainly won't make movies about it -- but these tactics lead to the kinds of quiet, unshowy eureka moments that make or break companies.

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