THE BLOG
10/19/2012 03:33 pm ET | Updated Dec 19, 2012

The Innovation Masters

Innovation is the lifeblood of any business. Whether it is a groundbreaking invention or an incremental change in process, innovation is about generating new ideas that will give the company's products and services a competitive edge. Business must constantly renew, reinvent and reinvigorate. In today's challenging economic environment, it may be tempting to scale back but it is actually more important than ever to innovate.

Innovation. You tell yourself it's a top priority, but between emails, meetings and fending off the crisis of the day, somehow you never get to it. How do you break the cycle? First, streamline business processes -- identifying and fixing what has you running around in circles, what doesn't work, what distracts (and costs you) every day. Then, reduce or eliminate non-value added initiatives. In every organization there are legacy initiatives that no longer fit the strategic direction of the organization. They should be axed. Tackle those two issues and you'll uncover a leaner, nimbler, more flexible organization that is free to innovate-on-demand.

It is one thing to recognize the value of innovation but quite another to make it happen. Effecting change necessarily means turning established business practices on their heads, being open to experimentation and the possibility of failure. It demands creative thinkers, fearless leaders and a corporate culture that embraces change combined with the capability to turn new ideas into winning products and services. No small challenge.

So how is your company doing? Is your firm leading, managing and creating a culture for innovation success and business breakthroughs? To stay ahead of the curve, organizations need to redefine the rules and build a culture for innovation. What is the secret sauce that allows some companies to distinguish themselves in the way they create a climate in which new ideas are encouraged, recognized and rewarded?

What are the new tools that enable companies to harness an explosion of new, productive, innovative ideas in a changing world. Steps one and two are described above. Cut through the clutter. Step three is to encourage the idea generators. These will be leaders at all levels who champion change, generate innovative solutions and recognize that they must thrive on innovation and originality, encouraging risk-taking and divergent voices.

Scattered throughout your organization are idea generators with fresh ideas for enhancing your company's business practices -- whether it's increasing productivity, elevating quality, redesigning processes, or leveraging technologies. Perhaps someone in manufacturing has devised a unique idea for advertising, while someone in marketing may be advocating new approaches to customer service.

Idea generators not only envision new realities, they use smart change-leadership tactics to embed them in your organization's practices. As a result, your company differentiates itself from competitors, workers strive to excel, retention is high and business performance soars.

Strategies for Cultivating Idea Generators

Recognize them.

To spot idea generators in your company, look for these distinctive behaviors:

  • Opportunity Scanning: Successful companies and leaders are constantly scanning for opportunities. They search for market opportunities/threats and take quick, creative action.
  • Commitment to Action: You can feel the organizational pulse rate by the speed with which they commit to action, allocating and reallocating resources (time, talent and capital) to pursue new opportunities. Decisions are made quickly, and intention is translated into action.
  • Constant Innovation: They engage in constant innovation, identifying opportunities and anticipating demand.
  • Hunting for ideas in management literature, at business conferences and just about everywhere -- even looking outside their business for new problem-solving approaches.
  • Learning from Other Industries: In other words, if you want your clothing company to cultivate superior service, have tea at the Four Seasons. If you want to attract top talent, see how Apple and Procter & Gamble do it.
  • Framing ideas in terms of key themes -- innovation, efficiency, effectiveness -- that decision makers value.
  • Selling ideas up and down the organization -- senior executives, the rank and file, and middle managers.
  • Implementing ideas: For example, by participating in early, small-scale experiments.

Carve out roles for them.

Create formal units dedicated to exploring new business ideas or new ventures. Also carve out roles that leverage idea generators' strengths. Ensure that they end up in a good position after an idea has run its course or becomes embedded in your organization. If idea generators don't prosper from championing ideas, others won't see the value in pushing ideas.

Give them freedom to pursue new ideas or improve on old ones.

Set them loose within the limits of explicitly stated corporate values. You'll help them feel more comfortable taking risks within clear boundaries. Many companies have the 10 percent rule, giving people 10 percent of their time to work on projects of their own choosing.

Reward them.

Idea generators are motivated primarily by intellectual stimulation and seeing ideas transformed into action. Reward them by listening to them and fully considering their ideas, visibly supporting meritorious ideas, and publicly acknowledging their achievements. Motorola, for example, annually announces new recipients of its Dan Noble Fellow Award and recognizes a broader group of valued technologists by naming them to its Science Advisory Board.

Support their ideas.

The single greatest factor determining whether ideas catch on in a company is the perception of CEO or top-management backing. Signal your support for a hot idea through organization-wide memos and management-team meetings where participants discuss how they're using the idea.

Create an idea-friendly culture.

To ensure that good ideas flourish, communicate the importance of embracing new ideas to risk-averse managers in your organization. Also encourage tolerance for the inevitable failures that come with exploration of new ideas.

Innovation is in the DNA of every great company. Their innovation process is considered to be a source of sustainable competitive advantage. It permeates all aspects of the business -- innovation in product and marketing, workplace practices, and corporate citizenship. Creating trends. Setting new standards. Continuously improving through change.

Now, more than ever, constant and meaningful innovation is critical to commercial success. The worldwide business environment is fiercely competitive. Global trade, instantaneous communications and the ease of market entry are among the forces putting greater pressure on product and brand differentiation. To be successful, it is imperative that we change, competing in new and different ways that are relevant to the shifting times. We must look at the world with new lenses and use the power of ideas to improve everything we do across all dimensions of our business, from modest improvements to total re-inventions.

But can you afford to innovate in such a deep recession?

Actually, you cannot afford not to. Nothing delivers more value to a business than innovation. Smooth the path to innovation and your whole company wins. Curtailing innovation efforts in tough times is a long-term strategic mistake. A barren innovation pipeline increases the risk of long-term competitive disadvantage. As the economic cycle inevitably shifts upward, companies who have dropped the innovation ball will find their fortunes sagging just as the economy surges.

Research and development or other innovation-related areas are natural places to look when searching for areas to cut in order to meet stricter budget targets. After all, these investments are unlikely to offer immediate returns, so trimming them back won't hurt the company's ability to meet top-line revenue targets.

Assiduously avoid this temptation. It might seem like your core operations have already been cut to the bone through efficiency-related efforts in the 1990s and 2000s, but many companies still have ample resources focused on efforts that are unlikely to create long-term strategic advantage. It is probably impossible to avoid a short-term crunch, so why derail long-term competitive advantage in a misguided attempt to avoid the unavoidable?

That's not to suggest you should spend innovation dollars thoughtlessly. It is important to safeguard efforts with the most long-term potential, while also ruthlessly pruning efforts that aren't going to pay off.

If you want to know how to innovate in a recession, there are examples right in front of you. Success leaves clues. All of the obvious successes -- the iPhone, iPad, Kindle, Flip and Zipcar, have one thing in common. They are always thinking about what's next. What's around the corner? How can we capitalize on change? Perhaps you should be thinking these things as well.