Innovation Again (and Again)

Posted by Chuck Kocher
On June 17, 2013

I’ve talked about innovation in this blog before. And you know what? I’ll probably do it again! That’s because innovation isn’t some one-time activity you engage in and then stick on your shelf. Innovation is a mindset you develop that filters through everything your company does. It’s a culture your company cultivates. But—like so many corporate culture characteristics—it won’t happen on its own. It also won’t happen unless you, as a leader, embrace it yourself.

Great companies continue to actively pursue innovation.  Fast Company recently posted an interesting article: 6 Ways To Create A Culture Of Innovation. You can read the article here, but I’d like to highlight the main points.

1. Be intentional with your innovation intent. You can’t simply adopt a culture of innovation. It needs to be part of your vision, your goals, and your strategic planning. Look at your company’s mission or vision statements. Is there anything innovative about them? Or do they sound like a hundred other companies?

2. Create a structure for unstructured time. I mentioned above that innovation doesn’t just happen by itself. Truly innovative companies (such as 3M or Google) actually give their employees free time (approximately 10 percent of their time) to noodle around with new ideas. What specific steps are you taking to encourage your employees to think outside the box?

3. Step in, then step back. Once you give employees the freedom to explore new ideas, you’re going to have to resist the temptation to control how they do it.  Free time means free time. Of course it doesn’t mean going shopping or playing video games on company time, but you also can’t control the creative process. Step in to make the time available, but know when to back off.

4. Measure what’s meaningful. Talking about innovation is one thing, but how do you know if you’re actually accomplishing anything? Ultimately you’d like to see your innovative thinking impact your bottom line, but that may take a while. In the meantime you may want to measure things such as the number of new ideas (whether they developed into products or services or not); the number of employees who’ve been trained or equipped to come up with innovative ideas; or even the amount of your budget that’s devoted to innovation.

5. Give “worthless” rewards. We all know that money is a great motivator. You may well want to reward ideas that increase your company’s profits. But creative, innovative people also respond to “rewards” that aren’t monetary: recognition and excitement among colleagues. And sometimes even an award such as “Craziest Idea of the Month” can actually prime the pump for practical innovation.

6. Get symbolic. Find some physical symbol that reminds employees of what your company is all about. Nike, for instance, has a refurbished RV in one of the buildings that they use as a conference room. It’s a reminder of the company’s early days when cofounder, Phil Knight reportedly sold shoes out of the back of a Winnebago. It’s a constant reminder of the company’s innovation—and of their roots.

You don’t have to take all these steps in order. As a matter of fact, you don’t have to take all of them—or even any of them. But you also can’t just sit around and wait for innovation to happen on its own. You have to pursue it . . . repeatedly.