I have been supporting organizations through their innovative journeys for almost a decade. Someone recently asked me what were some of the lessons I have learned along the way.
It was an interesting question as I have found the discussion around innovation to be dropping lower on the agenda as organizations face challenges that include labor shortages, inflation, the geopolitical landscape and climate change, and yet, it is the ability to mobilize teams and key stakeholders to think innovatively that I believe will help us tackle these complex challenges.
1. Develop A Clear Definition Of Innovation
Innovation is a popular word. It has broad applicability because it means developing something new and adding value. Yet it can be watered down so much that almost no one is clear on what it means. Doblin organizes innovation into 10 types including configuration, service offerings and experience. In my experience, organizations that can clearly define their innovation objectives achieve better outcomes and create a more pervasive impact from their innovation spend.
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2. Innovation Is Not Technology
I love technology. If I am asked to solve a problem, I immediately start thinking about a technology that might help tackle that problem: artificial intelligence, blockchain, 3-D printing, virtual reality, robotics and autonomous systems. There are so many technology options to choose from. However, if you simply focus on the technological solution, you start looking for a problem to solve instead of defining the problem and being open-minded to potential solutions. There was a recent article on innovations regarding Canadian Tire, a Canadian retailer, and one of these was giving roller skates to the service team to decrease service times, which I think is a great example of an impactful solution without necessarily using the latest technology.
3. Make Innovation A Part Of Your Work Culture
Many organizations have put in place an innovation leader to achieve their innovation objectives. No leader can achieve these objectives without being able to drive a culture of innovation throughout the organization. Innovation teams cannot operate in a vacuum; they need to work with the entire organization to understand challenges and give teams the tools to develop their own solutions.
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4. Become Data Driven
Innovation requires experimentation, but it is easy to become very attached to your idea and old ways of doing things. Defining the data that you will collect and how you will measure success is important to ensure you are able to walk away from that idea if the evidence shows it is not working the way it was intended. This can include feedback from customers, suppliers, social media and employees. Cast a net wide to make sure you are not ignoring critical feedback.
5. Leadership Is Key
For a truly innovative culture, you need to set the tone from the top down. If employees are told to be innovative but their leader does not demonstrate innovative thinking in their own approach, creative ideas will quickly stop flowing. An innovation team, no matter how competent, will not succeed if they do not have encouragement and support from, as well as access to, leadership to move their ideas forward.
6. Innovation Takes Patience
Change is hard and as humans, we often struggle with it. Building an organization that is always innovating is an organization that is constantly changing. That is not easy, and getting there, especially if you are starting as a traditional organization, takes time and patience. Breakthroughs that seem to appear out of nowhere have often actually been quietly in development for many years.
7. Celebrate Failure
I don’t like to fail. While it is easy to say that we need to celebrate failure, who wants to be the one whose idea failed? But you are not innovating if you are not taking risks. And while one idea succeeds, many ideas may fail along the way. Developing a process that celebrates those who try new things—that commemorates the learnings, rather than pointing out the failures—is an important balance when being innovative. The blame game will quickly stifle innovation.
8. Create Diverse And Innovative Teams
More diverse teams produce more innovative thinking. Tackling a new challenge requires generating multiple perspectives, and this is more likely to happen with a diverse team in a psychologically safe environment. This is not easy to achieve, but the outcomes are worth the effort. Getting perspectives from customers and other stakeholders can provide an even greater diversity of perspectives and often leads to better outcomes.
9. Make Your Champions Visible
Trying something for the first time is challenging—whether it is launching a new product, redesigning a process, implementing a new technology or running a new event. To be innovative, you need to be willing to go out on a limb and risk being out there all by yourself. That limb is a little less lonely if you can cultivate a few others in your organization. These can be others from your board of directors or even within your extended community of suppliers and customers. It is not easy to find these like-minded individuals, but the more transformational the idea, the more other champions can help move it forward. If you are successful the first time, it is much easier to find champions for the second round. Make sure champions are thanked and recognized for their support.
I often talk about the importance of innovating in an uncertain world. In a world of labor shortages, how do we innovate our compensation and retention strategies to build the team we need? Can we leverage more temporary resources? Can we change our inputs and partner with others? As we tackle climate change, how do we identify new ways of executing our business to reduce our impact on the environment? Are there new business opportunities created through these challenges? Despite the insights provided above, the number one tool for an innovator is curiosity, and there has never been a more important time to be curious.