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Trend #49: Innovation

The world of work continues to evolve rapidly, making the need for innovation a top priority. Every business wants to remain relevant in the face of Increasing competition, globalization, changing consumer expectations, and evolving technologies which are all drivers of innovation. Many companies are innovating on some level while others are struggling to innovate at all. This month's Action Brief explores innovation and how businesses are managing it within their current structures or changing to make their working environments more conducive to innovation at all levels.

Workplace Implications

Why aren’t all companies innovating? Some companies are risk averse, while others feel they have a corner on the market and don’t need to change. Still others see change coming and don’t do anything about it. Blockbuster openly admits they knew they needed to innovate and didn’t. And, then along came Netflix.

Determining what constitutes an innovation is a first step in beginning to foster a successful program. Some companies start by looking in the rearview mirror to identify ideas that produced margin and revenue gains in the past. They then use those learnings as a framework for developing a working definition. For something to be counted as innovative at Whirlpool, for example, the product or service must be unique, create a competitive advantage, potentially yield further innovations, and provide greater value for the customer than anything else on the market. What an innovation is varies by company.

Different forms of innovation can add to the challenges around definition. These are generally agreed upon as:

  • Product—think Fitbit, kindle, iPhone—or improvements to current products
  • Process—think supply chain or business operations improvements
  • Business model innovation—perhaps the most challenging, risky and disruptive--alas AirBnB and Uber

How do companies make innovation a priority? Initiatives need to start from the top down and should involve everyone in the company including customers and partners. The company culture should reflect an agenda that includes innovation as a priority. Many companies that are serious about innovation are using a phase-gate (or stage-gate) project management technique to manage new initiatives. The method is metric based with standardized scores applied at “gates” between each phase to determine if the project is ready to move to the next level. Other ways companies are fostering innovation include:

  • Developing and prioritizing structured innovation programs
  • Listening to stakeholders inside and out of the organization
  • Staying open to new ideas
  • Sponsoring innovation “boot camps” for employees
  • Collaborating—with employees, partners, and outside groups
  • Creating collaboration spaces for brainstorming and growing new ideas
  • Giving employees permission to innovate—and permission to fail
  • Flattening management structures to decrease long approval processes and empower employees to thrive in a more independent environment

For some employees, the innovative culture is a mindset shift and adjustment can take time. Leaders can encourage employees to embrace new ways of thinking by communicating regularly about innovation programs, sharing examples, and helping employees become familiar with the ideation process.

Adobe’s Kickbox program—an open-sourced innovation model—is designed so that any Adobe employee can participate, not just those who exhibit innovative traits in their everyday work. In this way, employees begin to learn how to innovate if they are not already naturally “wired” for it.

Some employees with an innovative mindset may find themselves working for companies that are not encouraging of or fostering innovation. Employees can pitch new ideas as a way of helping companies begin to think innovatively. Some suggested tips for employees who want to promote new ideas or concepts are to:

  • Ensure that their ideas are in line with their companies’ vision and objectives
  • Be flexible and open to feedback which can sometimes feel harsh or misguided but is a necessary and helpful component of innovation
  • Use imagery to help open the eyes of skeptics
  • Make sure their enthusiasm is backed up by facts and be ready to discuss risk mitigation related to the new idea

How can companies find the right employees to help grow a culture of innovation? Ask prospective employees the following questions to help determine whether or not they would be a match for your company:

  • How do they deal with change?
  • How have they helped innovate or improve processes in previous positions? Have them describe their creative processes and barriers they’ve encountered, explaining how their contributions may or may not have helped change the company bottom line.
  • How do they cope with failure? Have them to share an example from a professional standpoint.

Change, in general, is often driven by dissatisfaction or even conflict around ideas, products, and processes. Innovators can sometimes be labeled as not “playing well” with others. But keep in mind that it’s this very trait, a penchant for pushing the envelope, that sometimes drives the innovation and change needed to make or keep an organization successful.

To learn more about innovative processes within companies, we recommend “The Innovator’s Method” by Nathan Furr and Jeff Dyer. Read a preview here.

Classroom Implications

At MBA Research’s 2017 Conclave in Vancouver, Washington, several business speakers asserted that innovation can and should be taught in schools. While some students are natural innovators, those who are not can learn to think and act innovatively. Here are some ideas to get the ideas flowing with students:

  • Vera Sell, an innovator and Software Solutions Manager for Tektronix in Beaverton Oregon, spoke to one of our groups at Conclave and led us in an ideation exercise. She asked the attendees to come up with as many uses for a pair of socks as they could within five-minutes. We broke up into small groups, and each group wrote its ideas on sticky notes. In the end, all the ideas were shared aloud with prizes for the group who had the most ideas and to the group with the most unique idea. Sounds crazy—but the groups quickly worked together to generate creative ideas—and had a lot of fun at the same time.
  • Ms. Sell also introduced us to the Snake Oil game which has players doing sales pitches on oddly matched items—and requires them to think quickly about how the items could be useful in everyday life.
  • Ask students whether they feel they are suited to be innovators and what attributes this entails.
  • Talk with students about the differences between entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship. Ask which description better matches their interests and why.
  • Have students choose an organization to research how that organization is or isn’t innovating.