To what extent are you responsible for innovation in your company? The reality is that unless they're in research or product development, most people in organizations don't think of themselves as innovators. In fact, many managers discourage their people from inventing new ways of doing things -- pushing them instead to follow procedures and stay within established guidelines.
I was reminded of this distinction between "official innovators" and "everyone else" when I met with a group of high potential managers in a consumer products company. While everyone agreed that innovation should be accelerated in the firm, many felt powerless to act on it. "After all," they said, "new products need to come out of the labs."
But this statement assumes that innovation is exclusively about new products, services, or technology -- which is problematic. These kinds of new offerings are important, but organizations require innovation on all fronts. For example, Apple's success has been fueled not only by new products, but also by innovative approaches to packaging, retail sales, customer access, and partner agreements. Similarly, Toyota's growth has come as much from innovations in manufacturing, inventory control and management systems as it has from new automobiles.
Great organizations don't depend on a small number of exclusive people to come up with innovations. Instead they create a culture in which every employee is encouraged and empowered to innovate -- whether it's in processes, products or services. This leads not only to new customer offerings but also better margins, stickier customer relationships and stronger partnerships with other firms. Moreover, it leverages the brains and talents of thousands of people, any one of whom might generate either an incremental innovation or a breakthrough idea.
If you want to build a greater innovation culture in your company, here are a few ways to start, whether you are a senior leader or the manager of a small unit:
First, identify and implement some immediate innovation in your own area. Get your team together to identify possible ideas that will reduce costs, save time or improve service to customers. Pick one or two of these suggestions and make them happen quickly as a way to demonstrate innovation success. Just like skiing, golf, or any other activity, innovation takes practice.
Once your team has confidence that it can innovate incrementally, work together to identify a more ambitious innovation. This will force people to think further outside the box: Is there a way to reduce costs by 50 percent or more? Could you provide more value-added services or products to your customers (internal or external)? Could you combine services or offer adjacent services that would make your customers more successful? For example, one industrial products team decided to test an industry "vertical" business model -- which required every function to rethink its processes and contributions.
Finally, to make innovation stick, create an atmosphere that encourages people to develop and experiment with new ideas. Include "innovation" as a category in performance reviews. Recognize colleagues who try new approaches even if they're not perfect. And give people time (and perhaps even a budget) to think and experiment.
It's not easy to foster a culture of innovation, especially when there are day-to-day pressures to perform and conform -- which is why many managers pass on the responsibility for innovation. But the reality is that everyone has the ability to innovate; and if you can tap into that ability, your organization has a much better chance of success.
What's your experience with creating a culture of innovation?
Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online.
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