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Are you (culturally) ready for open innovation?

June 29, 2011

There has been so much (good) talk about the usefulness of open innovation.  It allows you to capitalize on information and ideas from company-external groups like your customers, vendors and even competitors.  But open innovation will fall flat on its face if you don’t first have an effective communication culture WITHIN your organization.

In previous posts, we’ve discussed ways to identify your workplace culture, and how to start connecting across teams to aid workplace innovation.  Today, we’re encouraging you to take a good hard look at your communication processes habits and whether they will help or hinder an open innovation initiative.

Consider these scenarios.

Industry trend sparks idea for new product/service line

You are a middle manager in a business services company.  You have 5 direct reports and your boss’ boss is the vice president of your operations department.

Last week, one of your direct reports emails you a report about the latest trends in your industry.  The report mentions several ways in which your competitors are harnessing the power of customer feedback to develop new services.  When you were lazing in the backyard over the weekend, an idea popped into your head for a service offering that could separate yourself from the competitive pack and create new growth opportunities in an untapped market segment.  You also know of a small company that already offers a key component of this new service, and that partnering with them will help you get to market much faster.

You get into work on Monday inspired and excited by this new idea.  You decide to schedule a short meeting with your boss to discuss its feasibility, and you hope to form a cross-functional working team to start developing and testing a framework for the new service.

It’s been less than 5 minutes into your meeting, and you’re feeling deflated.  Not only has your boss dismissed your idea, he has instead berated you for wasting time on something that is not core to your role within the company.

Board of directors wants 3 innovation projects launched this year

You are the COO of a consumer products company.  Growth has been steady but slow in the last 6 quarters.  You hold the greatest market share in your industry with a stable of old and highly-trusted products, but competitors have been gaining ground on you with more interesting and relevant products that truly solve their customers’ needs.

In the last meeting with the board of directors, you have been told in no uncertain terms that the company needs to be more innovative, and soon.  Protecting your turf is no longer just a question of re-branding, promoting or selling your existing product line.  You need to capture younger customer segments and be more mindful of the needs of modern living.

It’s Monday morning, and you have one week to come up with a plan of action that will infuse your staff with the urgency and enthusiasm it takes to make this internal shift happen.  You know that there are pockets of creative thinking in your company, and that some of your employees have strong connections to customers and companies with potentially valuable insights.  The question is, where and how do you begin to harness these insights?

Some (initial) solutions

Both scenarios seem different, but they point to the need for fundamental cultural shifts in the workplace.  The trouble is, such shifts take a long time, and sometimes the marketplace won’t wait for you to get your act together.

With this in mind, here are a couple of ways to start changing the tide:

  1. It takes tremendous clarity of vision, purpose and follow-through to implement cultural change.  If you are a senior executive and don’t have the time or tools to articulate this vision, get the right help externally.  There are many communication and/or change management experts out there.  Do your homework though – many offer only one piece of the puzzle e.g. they’ll craft a communication plan but won’t stick around to ensure it’s implemented properly.
  2. If you are a middle manager with a good idea, and if senior management is too old and slow to budge, consider setting up your own internal taskforce to develop and pilot your idea.  Use your powers of persuasion, or align yourself with someone who can express your vision clearly to potential collaborators.  Seek the more progressive senior executives in your midst to get their blessing for initial pilots or rollouts.  If you truly believe in your idea, there will usually be a way to bring it to life.  The one BIG thing to keep in mind is a solid understanding of your company’s strategy and business goals for the year.  Be sure your idea will help achieve those goals, not detract from them.  Whenever you’re discussing your idea internally, frame it in the context of the overall strategy and goals.  The chances of buy-in will increase dramatically.
We’ll return to this topic in future – there’s so much more than can fit in one post!
In the meantime, what do you think about the scenarios and solutions above?  Do you agree with them?  Do you have any personal stories to share around trying to communicate an innovative idea in a culture that doesn’t innately encourage it?

The Innovation Mindset

June 20, 2011

“Innovative” is often seen as a quality that a person either has or doesn’t have, they either are innovative or they aren’t. Yes, innovative people have qualities which make them see the world differently, but it is not so elusive. Anyone can have the innovation mindset. All it takes is to be observant and insightful.

Be observant. 

Don’t go through life staring down at your shoes and try not to always have your head in the clouds either. Keep your eyes and ears open and you’ll pick up on so many little things. Even things about business. Most of us engage in multiple transactions a day. Your trip to buy your morning cup of coffee or the next time you fill up the gas tank could teach you something. At the cafe, observing the cashier relay your order to the barista and how different employees interact could tell you about managerial relationships or operational flow. A trip to the pharmacy could teach you about inventory management and customer relations.

To practice observing like an innovator:

  • Set aside a certain amount of time each day and just people watch. Maybe even just as you’re standing in the checkout line at the supermarket, observe the people in line around you.
  • Focus on just one sense. Wear headphones and just use your eyes while walking down the street. Or close your eyes and just focus on what you can hear. Alter your perspective for a change.

Insight.

Being insightful means taking your observations and relating them back to you and whatever problems you may be working on. But even if your problem is reducing shipping costs of your product, you may not find that solution simply by being observant in the world of shipping costs. You need a holistic view and truly innovative people are constantly observing and analyzing every aspect of life. Notice patterns and draw from all people and places.

Being insightful also means that you have to take this observant quality and apply it inward as well as outward. Notice things that you yourself do habitually that maybe affect your productivity. Is there anything in the office that inhibits collaboration or communication? Innovations don’t have to be a new feature on a product or a whole new line of services. Positive changes which drive profit or ultimately improve a customer’s or the shareholders’ experience can be made internally, behind the scenes.

Innovators stay on their toes and are always thinking, always active. These are qualities which anyone can emulate. “Innovation” is an abstract and intangible word but it is not impossible to achieve. What other qualities do you think distinguish innovators?

Image from ttwv.wordpress.com

Workplace innovation: How to connect across teams

June 14, 2011
by

This past weekend, I listened to a webcast of IESE Professor Paddy Miller’s talk at the 2011 World Innovation Forum.  I punched my fists in the air in total agreement when he said that one giant insight of innovation was the huge disconnect between senior management and operational/executional teams.

Amen, brother.

Company executives can talk, brainstorm and plan all they want.  But if a chasm exists between their ideas and how/whether their teams execute on them, then you’re stuck in creative la-la land, not a charmed innovative one.

Creativity or Innovation?

People have been harping on the distinction between creativity or ideation vs. innovation.  It bears repeating here, if only to set up my argument.  We are all inherently creative, improvisational creatures.  Adulthood, social norms and traditional command-and-control workplace cultures may have conditioned that out of our psyches, but it’s still in there, inside us all and waiting to be expressed.  With the right environment, it can and will resurface.

Innovation, on the other hand, is a more complex beast.  Creativity is but one piece of the puzzle.  Strategic thinking, a systemic mindset, operational precision and effective, authentic inter-departmental communication are other critical elements.  Most of all, a truly innovative enterprise has figured out the sweet spot between all of the above, DELIGHTING the customer and consequently turning a PROFIT.

The Disconnect

So…back to the disconnect between senior leadership and the rest of the company.  This harms innovation both ways.  If leaders design innovation activities in their ivory tower, without gaining insights into operational or customer realities from their teams, chances of a successful venture are diminished.  And if teams brainstorm willy-nilly without strategic input and guidance from their leaders, then innovative energy is scattered at best.

The Solution(s)

What’s to be done, then?

  • Create and maintain an open culture of communication.  This is sometimes easier said than done, but certainly not impossible to change.  Staff need to feel like their voice is valid and recognized.  It needs to take root at ALL levels, from the C-suite on down.  It requires exhaustive degrees of inter-departmental and company-wide communication.  It demands a review of hiring and training practices, to ensure that employees understand and (ideally) are naturally inclined to collaborate rather than insulate.  It necessitates the reduction or elimination of political fiefdoms, through a combination of zero tolerance for back-biting and a fundamental shift of reward and recognition schemes (Daniel Pink’s work is a great introduction to modern-day motivation).
  • Adopt a systems view to innovation.  The most innovative companies do not silo their efforts.  Innovation is simply part of their lifeblood.  From talent management to internal collaboration platforms to social media tools, successful organizations are adopting a systems approach to identify and address the communication roadblocks that may thwart innovative outcomes.
  • Try stealthstorming.  If the two (largely) top-down ideas above seem too daunting, and like you need to boil the ocean, then consider a guerrilla, bottoms-up tactic instead.  Paddy Miller’s idea of stealthstorming is the antithesis of brainstorming.  It calls upon the ingenuity and savvy of intrapreneurs to conceptualize, grow, sell and eventually operationalize an innovative strategy.
  • Always remember why you’re innovating.  Do not innovate just for its own sake, nor because the rest of the world has decided it’s the hip and trendy thing to do.  Start with the ‘why’ in mind.  Think about the bigger picture, not just about getting your pet idea out there.  If you work for a large company, stay up-to-date on the organization’s plans and goals and design your innovative ideas to align with or amplify those goals.  Even if you want to engage in disruptive innovation, be mindful of the competitive landscape so that you can present a cogent case to your internal stakeholders.  And if you’re an entrepreneur, test (and protect) your idea at every step of the way so that it has the best possible chance of success.
I’ll leave it there for now.  What do you think about the points listed above?  What are some other important cultural factors to consider when building communication bridges during innovation?  Please comment below – I’d love to hear from you!


Image from insight2010-liba.blogspot.com

Can you put a Quota on Innovation?

June 6, 2011

Innovation is a hot commodity. Google and Apple, two brands almost synonymous with innovation are powerhouse brands with seemingly unlimited potential for growth and expansion. Groupon, arguably the most talked about newcomer over the past year, has seen a jump in valuation  from 6 to 15 to 25 billion dollars over the past six months, all for revolutionizing something as mundane as a coupon. One idea can be a game-changer and every company is in the race to find the next big thing. Companies can and should structure themselves to foster innovation. But to what extent is mandating innovation a good business plan?

Creativity is often born from constraint. This might suggest that a regimen of innovation is helpful. You could get employees to come up with 5 ideas a week to improve the company in any way from the actual product or service itself to a new direction for branding to even the physical set-up of the office. Alternately, you could have the entire company brainstorm on one focused aspect of the business for a week.

It can be good to prescribe these processes and enforce them according to a schedule. To put a quota on the end result, however, can be detrimental. Innovation which truly counts and which will revolutionize your business in some way can be hard to come by. It should be hard to come by. If your business is doing anything right, then there may not be a huge number of changes or new ideas which will incur dramatic and beneficial results.

So yes, you can reward or even require that your employees strive for innovation, to be constantly thinking. But to demand a certain number of innovative ideas may be impossible and putting an unnecessary strain on your company’s time and resources.

So go ahead, put a quota on how many ideas an employee or a department needs to come up with. It can get the gears turning and remind everyone to think outside the box occasionally.

If you decide to prescribe these innovative processes, you must have a business environment which is open to innovation. If Good Will Hunting taught us anything, it’s that the most insightful and productive minds can belong to someone in any position, even the janitor. Great ideas can come from any department so the entire company needs to get talking and sharing. To create an incubating environment for innovation, communication and open-mindedness are key.

Give employees a balance between freedom and accountabilityTrust that your employees will be productive and work towards company goals without strict supervision. At the same time, reserve periods for constructively critical feedback to keep everyone aligned with company strategy.

Welcome radical thinkingRevolutionary ideas may sound crazy or counter-intuitive at first, but these could be the ideas which create the most positive change. Keep open lines of communication. Let conflicting ideas meddle together and take time to consider them all before deciding on a plan of action.

Don’t innovate for innovation’s sakePrizing the new over the old can revitalize your business but should be a guideline rather than a hard and fast rule. The point is to initiate innovative habits. You want ideas on the table though you’ll probably end up saying ‘no’ more often than saying ‘yes.’ Communicate this with your employees. Be clear that their innovative efforts will always be valued though they may not come to fruition.

Alas, innovation cannot be prescribed. Innovative thinking and re-structuring your company’s systems for communicating ideas can. The idea is to create an environment rich with the foundations for insightful change without forcing any particular outcome.

Do you think innovation can be assigned and planned for? Let us know in the comments.

Image from innovationmanager.com

For real…what’s your workplace culture? A 10-point checklist

May 30, 2011

I don’t know about you, but I’ve read tons of ‘how to’ lists and theories about workplace culture. And it’s still not always clear exactly what I should do today, tomorrow and on an ongoing basis to foster a work culture that works. This article is an attempt to solve that riddle.

Culture is a funny thing. The reason it’s so hard to create/control is because it’s largely a result of our human-ness. And humans can be extremely cryptic or fickle. Add to that the fact that we don’t always communicate effectively, even in the best of times, and you’ve got yourself a multi-factor conundrum. It’s rarely as simple as adding ingredients from the latest workplace culture guru, stirring well and knowing that it will all turn out perfect.  Just ask any manager.

But…there ARE things you can start to do today that could turn the tide.  And if you want to create a work environment that celebrates and nurtures creativity and innovation, then one of the most fundamental steps is to become aware of your workplace culture.  If you don’t know what culture exists today, how do you know if it’s a suitable one to drive innovation forward?

I will return to this topic several more times.  For now, I urge you to think through the checklist below.  I mean, REALLY think through it.  Be brutally honest.  The truth can hurt, but it also ultimately heals.  And if you’re in a leadership position in your company, start thinking about what these answers spell for the fate of innovation initiatives.

If you recognize your company in 4 or more of the items below, then you need to fix some essential aspects of your workplace culture before you can start to foster innovation.

  1. During a meeting, when the presenter is done and asks if there are any questions, there is typically silence.  Sometimes, with a little urging, there are a few simple or casual comments.  These comments rarely dispute what is being said.
  2. Staff members wear masks at work i.e. they tend to say different things or portray themselves differently during office hours, then say the opposite (typically bitch & moan) during lunch hour or after work with their inner circle of colleagues.
  3. The company has tried several ways to instill innovation e.g. ‘20% free time’, ‘innovation month’, ‘suggest a new idea & win an iPad’ but somehow they don’t pan out.
  4. Innovation technology and tools have been introduced e.g. intranet feedback channels, idea suggestion software.  These work for a while, then become misused or abandoned.
  5. When a disruptive idea is suggested, there is no way of strategically assessing whether it is worth pursuing or investing in.
  6. Innovation & creativity is perceived purely as ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking i.e. the zanier, the better and therefore the more appropriate.
  7. The company comprises several distinct sub-cultures that don’t respect or, worse, actively engage in politics with each other.  E.g. the R&D department thinks the marketing department sucks, and the sales teams hate finance’s guts etc.
  8. The company is deliberately set up so that departments have to compete with each other for (limited) resources, and the most aggressive or vocal departments are rewarded the most often.
  9. The frequency & intensity of miscommunication seems to be escalating.  Department heads or executives often have to step in to arbitrate.
  10. Staff contribution and recognition seem out-dated or off-kilter.  If your company is more conventional, then people who ‘rock the boat’ are thumbed down.  And if your company is more progressive, then staff who hold down the fort and make sure things run smoothly (e.g. operations, customer service) are taken for granted.

Surprised to see this type of checklist in an article about innovation?  Well, so was I when I first wrote this.  My intention for this blog is to get real, to get to the heart of what can thwart innovation.  And a toxic, non-trusting, apathetic, non-celebratory, non-strategic, non-thinking, short-term approach at work will make any innovation initiative die a quick death.
I hope this list has set you thinking.  What other cultural red flags do you know of that can stand in the way of creating an innovative enterprise?  Please comment below.

Image from berendquest.blogspot.com

The Communication Gap in Innovation

May 25, 2011

I’ve been sitting on this idea for a blog long enough.  It’s high time I shed light on a CRITICAL aspect of the corporate innovation process that most netizens seem to have glossed over.

Communication.

We can organize and attend brainstorming and creativity workshops till we’re blue in the face.  We can assign a special taskforce to be the ‘innovation hothouse’.  Or we can hire a consultant to give us a kick in the innovation pants.  None of these tactics will truly work until we realize that the best ideas in the world will die a quick death without inculcating the right communication culture, or the systems and processes to support it.

When you make a decision to become more innovative as a company, you’re signing up to change the status quo.  And that includes the way you interact with each other internally.  How can you expect the square peg of innovation to fit into a company traditionally filled with round holes?  Something has to give, and that something is typically the innovation initiative itself.  By year’s end, it ends up becoming the butt of jokes at the office Christmas party.  “Hey Mike, remember back in March when the boss wanted us to create a new product for tweens?  Boy, was that a waste of time…”

It takes a village to raise a child.  By the same token, it takes a corporate community of equipped, aligned and enthusiastic employees to bring a new idea or process to market.

This is where Inventive Change comes in.

We believe that human beings are an inherently creative and problem-solving species.  Generating new ideas is seldom the problem.  But nurturing them to fruition is.

In our experience, we’ve seen many an innovation taskforce fail.  We’ve also been part of seemingly impossible successes, and have witnessed the crucial role that effective & authentic communication played in those triumphs.

We look forward to sharing our opinions and tools with you in the coming months and years.  For now, we leave you with these initial thoughts:

  1. Excellence and entertainment can co-exist.  The world’s most innovative companies (e.g. Zappos, Apple, Google, Pixar) inject fun and/or downtime to get the creative juices flowing, while still maintaining high accountability and performance.
  2. Don’t kill the (cash) cow that feeds you.  Innovation is not about disruptive change just for the sake of it.  If something ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  3. But don’t rest on your laurels either.  If your competitors aren’t incubating new ideas, then completely new entrants might be.  Technology continues to lower barriers to entry, so you need to stay ahead of the curve.
  4. Leave robotic work to robots.  Machines have automated a lot of our daily tasks, so let us humans (especially your knowledge workers) do what we do best in favorable climates – conceptualize and collaborate.
  5. Innovation without leadership and vision is tantamount to giving a monkey a loaded gun.  There may be more collateral damage than you bargained for.
So, welcome to the Inventive Change blog.  We hope you stay a while, chat and grow with us.

What are your biggest frustrations around all the talk about innovation these days?  Do you have a story of when poor communication led to failed innovation?  Please comment below.