Innovation at Full Sprint

3 Ways to Make Innovation a Part of How Your Business Works

For most of us, the greatest obstacle in driving and achieving innovation today is finding time for it. Among the business goals, client demands, competitive threats, advancing technologies and need to achieve maximum operational efficiency, making time for innovation work is certainly not easy but it is essential. Innovation, after all, is quickly becoming the great differentiator.

Innovation Sets a Business Apart

Edward D. Hess wrote, “Technology advancements will make achieving scale and efficiency easier — leaving innovation as a key competitive differentiator.” He points out that technology is leveling the operational and efficiency playing fields. To stand out, businesses must make time and room for innovation and that means innovating at the breakneck speed of business today.

How can it be done when employees feel busier than ever? To create an organization capable of consistently producing high-value innovation, businesses need to build a foundation of ingenuity in three areas:

  • Mindset
  • Environment
  • Process

#1: Build an Innovation Mindset

Every business and its leaders talk about the importance of innovation, but true innovative work requires more than words. The entire organization needs to be guided toward innovation and that guidance starts at the top. Business leaders, from CEOs and CTOs to COOs and CFOs make the rules. They decide if experimental work is rewarded or punished. They choose if failing in the pursuit of innovation is viewed as a gain or loss by the company.

Experimentation is a hallmark of innovative work, but experiments can fail. As one legendary innovator, Einstein, said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” Businesses that want to gain market share and competitive advantage by being the pioneer that “tries something new,” cannot punish those who dare to risk. Employees who fail in their work while pursuing ingenuity and innovation should be a source of inspiration. Too often, however, businesses reward those employees who play it safe and achieve standard, low-risk successes.

To cultivate an innovation mindset across the business, leaders need to be examples of innovative thinking and supporters of innovative approaches, which can include:

  • Rewarding and recognizing innovators, whether their efforts are a triumph or a learning opportunity.
  • Sharing the entire innovation story. Businesses talk a lot about success stories but what about innovation failure stories?
  • Joining the pursuit. From participating in innovation teams or labs to providing resources, leaders can show support for innovation or participate in the work directly.

#2: Build an Environment that Fosters Innovators

Does your workplace and culture stifle or stir experimentation, creativity, and collaboration? Are employees encouraged to work differently to embrace challenges and opportunities? Where amid all the fast-paced deliverables are you giving teams time to create?

Consider how you structure work, teams, schedules and even workplaces to see where innovative thinking might be encouraged. Encouraging employees to take time to work in different spaces and configurations, for example, can be a simple way to change perspectives, input and even who people are collaborating with from day to day.

Work environments that foster movement and change increase opportunities for creative thinking. And this is true for on-site or remote teams. Businesses can help release ingenuity by releasing staff from traditional workspace norms. For example:

  • Take traditional brainstorming sessions away from the office. Try walking, outdoor, or off-site collaborations where new inputs can spawn new thinking. Field trip anyone?
  • Establish innovation labs or teams dedicated to experimentation. Consider Google’s longstanding 20% practice, which encourages employees to dedicate one-fifth of their work time to side projects they think will benefit Google down the road. They are given time to think and work like visionaries and that has led to important innovations for the company over the years. For those of us who cannot afford taking 20% away from addressing immediate business needs, consider an hour or two per week. Baby steps can take us far.
  • Mix it up when it comes to team collaborations. If the same few people are working together, how do new ideas and perspectives filter in? Find ways for people in different roles across the business to engage, share and even work together. Sometimes a simple revelation about a business challenge or need from a new face can spark big ideas.

#3 Create an Action-driven Process

Businesses with a strong innovation mindset and environment will produce great ideas quickly and often. With ideas flowing in, a business needs to have a process in place for capturing the best ideas and advancing them with speed and action. Here are a few ideas for structuring a process that takes innovation ideation into potential solutions, products and methodologies that can improve business results:

  • Establish a screening process for innovations. Determine a time and/or place when employees and teams are able to present and advocate for their innovative ideas. This is an opportunity for leaders to consider the possibilities and determine what should move forward and the resources that should be invested in further experimentation and innovation.
  • For innovations that move forward, put an executive sponsor in place who will monitor the path forward for new ideas and open resource channels if teams get stuck. Nothing accelerates innovation better than having an enthusiastic and resourceful business leader behind it.
  • Create a go-to-market roadmap as soon as possible. Once there is validation and momentum behind a product or solution, the race is on. Businesses must move fast to convert on great ideas and having a fast, smart plan for getting an innovative idea to market is critical.

With the pace of advancement always accelerating, businesses cannot slow down for innovation. They can, however, build it into everyday work, making innovative thinking and creation routine to operations and an opportunity for all.

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