Every entrepreneur has heard the phrase, “Always be innovating.” But what does it actually mean? You know, in the real world, where you’re trying to meet sales projections, deliver the next security update, and reply to a gajillion emails. What does innovation look like?
It starts with the culture. I know it seems like everyone says like every business decision revolves around culture. And it does — to an extent.
In this instance, I think about the wise words of Sir Ken Robinson. “If you want a culture of innovation, there are certain conditions for it,” he said. “The culture of an organization is about habits and habitats — creating a habitat where people feel their ideas are welcomed, empowered and reward, and creating physical environment that develops new ideas.”
Innovation can be tricky, but it’s downright impossible if you don’t have an environment (and a culture) that supports. However, if you’ve taken steps to create the best environment, including building diverse teams and encouraging people to cross-pollinate their ideas, how do you go about inspiring an ongoing innovation cycle?
A Method to the Madness
While working on The Startup Equation, my co-author Ja-Nae and I developed our SMART Innovation. It’s a method based on hundreds of innovation projects, both the good and the bad. That said, I need to preface this discussion with the reality that no single organization has it all figured out. Also, there’s no one thing that will guarantee your organization will innovate in a meaningful way.
It starts with an honest audit of your innovation programs. If you don’t have one at this point, the audit will be fast. But assuming you do, begin by identifying what’s working and what’s not.
- (S)tart with Opportunities: What potential opportunities take full advantage of your company resources?
- (M)ake Observations: Meet with customers who could benefit from the opportunities you identify. Observing behavior and their response can help validate or uncover ideas.
- (A)ccelerate Ideas: Consider partnering with larger companies and adopting open innovation techniques (like innovation networks) to discover new ideas. In house, you can set up brainstorming sessions or hackathons to build on identified opportunities.
- (R)efine Concepts: Once the concept/idea/innovation is identified, use your BASE Board, proto-personas, and the other tools in The Startup Equation. Doing so will help make innovation less abstract for your team.
- (T)est and Validate: After you refine the concept, it’s time to test and validate. Does this innovation deserve your company’s full commitment? The results will offer a measurable answer to help you make the business case to other stakeholders and decision makers in the organization.
Creativity Supports Innovation
With the SMART Innovation method in place, you’ll find it’s easier to support your team’s creativity at work. It’s a huge paradox, but the place we’re expected to be most creative (work) is the last place we feel creative. You’ll improve your innovation process significantly when you take steps to support creativity.
- Set clearly defined goals. It takes time and risk to come up with new ideas. Managers fear the cost and employees worry about the risk if they don’t deliver. You can counter the fear with clear goals and specific objectives. Stop saying, “Come up with a great idea.” Instead say, “Come up with measurable improvements for our sales funnel by June 1, 2016.” Clear and specific makes a huge difference to your organization.
- Create intersections. Within companies, different teams can be isolated from each other. But we know how valuable it can be to connect with people outside our group. Intersections can be as simple as an inviting breakroom that multiple groups share. And pay attention in general. Some natural intersections already exist that you can nurture. See a lot of different people around the same person’s desk? That’s a potential intersection.
- Reward failure — strategically. Innovation will sometimes lead to failure. So taking a creative risk can feel like a big risk. Recognize the value of encouraging the execution of ideas and rewarding failure — the first time. Then, require that person to learn from the failure. Use these moments to reward creativity and build a healthy innovation loop.
In the beginning, you had a great idea. You may have even found success turning that idea into a product or service. But what comes next matters just as much as that original idea. How do you support the need to innovate, to challenge the status quo?
Because here’s the reality. There’s someone else, just like you, with a great idea, primed to take your spot if you don’t commit to staying innovative.
It’s an ongoing process. So don’t expect to figure it out overnight, but the entrepreneurs and the organizations that commit to supporting innovation will be around for a long time to come.