Innovation is BIG news. Everyone wants it. Everyone wants to be described as innovative. But what exactly does it mean to be innovative, and can it really be achieved without large upfront research costs and a loss in productivity?
Politicians love to tell us that innovation is the key driver for growth in the UK economy. Think how often we see them roll out the “Britain is innovative” brand with a media photo call opportunity at an innovative high tech firm.
We are also very aware of those massive game changing innovations that affect all of our lives (I am typing this on my iPad, after all). Throughout history, our lives are driven (and largely bettered) by innovation – from fire and the wheel through to the internet and even the humble shipping container – those who saw the recent BBC Four documentary will understand!
Problems with innovation
There are problems with ‘big’ innovations, however. Firstly, they are very rare. The Walkman (if you don’t know what that is, ask a parent) was a massive innovation, and a great success for Sony. But it’s one that Sony has never really repeated. In truth, they take significant investment to bring about.
And that brings us to innovation problem number two: cost. Look at how much money the pharmaceutical industry spends on research and development to evidence this. Bringing a new drug to market is fraught with challenges, not least the risk that having invested vast amounts of money in developing a product, someone else brings theirs to market first. Dr Charlie Shepherd, talks about such research costs in his blog on speeding up the innovation process in new product development.
For a big innovation to be successful, it usually necessitates you or your customers making significant changes in practices, approaches, ways of working or living. This is very difficult until your early adopters have given proof of concept and you have achieved some degree of critical mass.
Steve Jobs is a good example of a business innovation ambassador that conquered this issue. But while he was highly successful in creating the “reality distortion” required to enable Apple to conquer an entirely new market, others have been less so. Lord Sugar’s Amstrad video phone never overcame this hurdle, and – if some technology business innovation analysts and commentators are to be believed – 3D-TV is going the same way.
An alternative to the ‘Big Shift’ innovation models
There is an alternative though. While there can be great value in transformative business models that embrace large-scale changes to adapt to changing markets, innovation for most businesses shouldn’t just be about radical shifts or major leaps forward. It’s also about a mindset that seeks to make incremental improvements that can benefit us, our business, our customers and employees in all sorts of ways. Efficiency improvements are as much about innovation as disruptive technologies are.
Working as a researcher looking at innovation, adaption and change, I have observed some simple principles that we should all be mindful of in trying to encourage an innovative mindset.
The 7 key principles of an innovation mindset
1. Innovation shouldn’t be constrained. Big or small, product or process, labels don’t matter. What matters is that you actively look for and listen to any and all new ideas.
2. Ideas need to be heard. Yes, even the downright daft ones! The discussions that ideas (both good and bad) create can often lead us to something we may not have thought of otherwise. And we need to respond meaningfully to all these suggestions. People need to know ideas are valued, even if they can’t always be implemented.
3. Make innovation everyday. This doesn’t have to be radical thinking or a process change, but a regularly asked question, such as “what can we do differently?” Improvements have to be part of the day-to-day.
4. Keep your eyes and ears open. The established practices employed by the business next door may be your next innovation. Innovations don’t have to be completely new, just new for you. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!
5. Conversation and dialogue need to be encouraged. One of the biggest barriers to this is the ‘innovation’ of email. Many firms are now actively discouraging employees from interacting via email. (See Thierry Breton’s ban on internal emails at Atos.) Small huddles, short meetings and talking face-to-face allow for a much richer exchange and more ideas.
6. Incremental improvements can be valuable. If you save everyone in your organisation just ten minutes a day through small changes in practices, the cumulative impact of this across the whole business can be huge.
7. Just because it’s a simple idea doesn’t mean it won’t have impact. I met a CEO recently who was amazed at the intangible benefits that he’d got from providing free fruit for staff. Small changes like this that show people they are valued are not to be underestimated.
These sound (and are) obvious. But the sad truth is that established organisational practices so often neglect these simple opportunities to encourage an innovation mindset.
When times are difficult, we are so focused on getting things done and are often stretched for time and resources, that making space for innovation thinking feels all the more difficult. But it is in exactly these circumstances that innovations are all the more necessary. Even when not facing difficult times, management practices can often inadvertently quash innovation. See Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s shares some of these practices in her Nine Rules for Stifling Innovation.
The simple principle is clear. Success comes from being genuinely open to ideas and doing something with them. Nothing more expensive or complicated than that.
Great examples of companies of all shapes and sizes and highlight the inspirational work and unsung heroes in Yorkshire’s business community can be seen on the shortlist for this year’s Excellence in Business Awards.
I hope these tips have shown how innovation practices can be easily incorporated into everyday working practices, and that you really can encourage innovation at work without any expense, disruption or culture shift.
Do you agree with this advice? Have you tried to implement innovation practices in your organisation? What has worked and what hasn’t? Are you a business innovation ambassador for your organisation? I’d love to hear from you!
Please do share your comments below. After all, it is through discussion of ideas that innovation occurs!