People often assume that innovation and creativity are gifts only some people have. The gods of business bestow breakthrough ideas to a select few, while the rest of us are doomed to a life of cookie-cutter ideas and by-the-book thinking. The truth is that you can learn, and teach, innovation as well as you can teach marketing or leadership. You just need to understand how it works.
Innovation is not invention
Invention is a creative act. It comes out of a desire to build something new. Invention alone does not equal success — just spend some time on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s website. There are tons of wonderful inventions that have failed to provide value to users.
Innovation, on the other hand, is creativity applied. It’s not about creating something with the faint hope that someone will use it. Innovation demands that we recognize the needs of specific customers so we can build the products and services they actually want.
Procter & Gamble is a company known for its applied innovation. It uses a human-centric approach, both internally and externally, to go beyond accepted ideas to generate better solutions for the everyday problems its customers face.
Innovation runs counter to traditional practices
What most companies find difficult about innovation is that it goes against traditional business practices of maximizing profit by creating the greatest number of products or services at the lowest cost using the fewest resources. Traditionally, everything we consider “good business practices” has been focused on eliminating waste and maximizing efficiency.
Innovation, or developing something new from which someone receives value, requires experimentation. This means success is not immediate — especially when you’re reaching for transformative concepts.
There’s a method to the madness
Doing away with traditional operations and reaching for breakthrough ideas makes leaders nervous because they feel as though they’re losing control and sacrificing structure, with no guarantee of a successful outcome. Counter to popular belief, there is a methodology to teaching your team members to innovate as you build flexibility into your old operating structures.
- Create a common language. Your first step should involve getting everyone in each department on the same page. You need consistency throughout all stages of development to create space for innovation. I recommend adopting design thinking, a human-centered approach that uses designers’ tools to solve wicked problems. There are many resources to use as you implement this methodology. By training people how to use this common language for innovation, you can accelerate and measure the leading indicators of innovation.
- Set short-term goals. Establishing short-term goals allows teams to achieve quick wins that can easily be communicated throughout the organization, which helps build momentum and leads to more breakthroughs. In “Good to Great,” Jim Collins argues that good-to great transformations don’t happen overnight. “Good to great” comes “step by step, action by action, and decision by decision.”
- Practice what you want to see. Leaders tend to think they’ve earned their place and can push strategic initiatives on lower-level employees. But to teach innovation within an organization, leaders at all levels must understand how innovation fits with strategic goals and communicate why it’s important. They must manage the change associated with introducing and sustaining innovation.
The North Face is a company that does a great job of incorporating innovation across all aspects of its enterprise, galvanizing not only the research and product development parts of the business but also the supporting functions, from finance through the supply chain.
Most importantly, all leaders must understand that innovation involves investment, risk, and perhaps failure before benefits are achieved. They should support team members’ innovation efforts by giving them space to try their new ideas and not disparaging those who are less than successful.
Like anything else in the business world, it takes hard work and dedication to increase the amount of innovation within an organization, but it can be done. You don’t have to hope for someone in the company to suddenly be imparted with the “gift” of innovation. You can start right now and teach it to every employee at every level to build effective problem solving into the fabric of your organization.
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