The speed of innovation is increasing exponentially therefore competitive times demand deliberate breakthroughs. When asked who is responsible for innovation, most employees point to engineers, designers or programmers. Every individual throughout the organization should focus on continuous improvement of operations, products and services. Innovations can range from revolutionary patents to smarter ways of doing everyday tasks. Businesses that prioritize a creative culture stand out by being first, best or different. Innovation is measurable in customer growth and retention, enhanced brand recognition and adoption, improved returns on resources, easier problem solving and superior revenues. Business leaders play a critical role in building a culture of ongoing innovation.
Managers may be tempted to tell new employees how things must be done. Managers should convey expectations of results and schedules but leave methodologies to employees. Game rules are rewritten so that we do not become carbon copies of others. Only a few decades ago all Ford motorcars were black. Manufacturing capabilities today enable us to interrupt old paradigms. We can apply some game rules from other industries and countries to our own. Drive-through banking was invented by blending an element from the food industry with the banking industry.
Many executives do not or cannot take time to talk to customers. Only a top self-sustaining brand can replace relationships. If we do not have two-way communication with customers, a competitor could beat us to the marketplace. We have to ensure that gatekeepers free us to talk to people to discuss our problems and theirs. A business consumed by crisis management and run by reaction-driven managers cannot innovate. Direct dialogue is a proactive springboard for new ideas. Customers will tell us what they would like but we must remember to ask them if the product or service existed, what they would be prepared to pay for it.
Novel ideas can originate while brainstorming in boardrooms. Often people get flashes of genius at ‘inconvenient’ times such as while shopping, while driving or in a coffee shop. Those light-bulb moments can be captured if we always carry a notepad or recorder. Amazon.com executives place whiteboards on walls, tabletops and in elevators. Software that enables electronic mind-mapping is an excellent tool to play with ideas. Managers should not question employees who take breaks from their workstations. We stifle the creative process by policing office rituals such as coffee breaks and lunchtimes. Managers should encourage alternating times of quietude, noise, solitude and crowds.
Business leaders often exclude junior employees and negative people from problem solving. Leaders may reason that senior executives are better qualified and the less some people know about ideas, visions and plans, the less they will criticize. Not an executive, but a janitor proposed the bright idea of the glass elevator. By seeking all manner of feedback, we can check whether we overlooked something or assume too much. Identifying the next best thing requires a certain level of disengagement. If we seek alternatives to energy dependency, the last people to ask are shareholders within the oil industry.
Innovative capabilities depend largely on the competencies and motivation of employees. Much of 3M’s rich innovative culture stems from the principle set forth by their former president and chairman. William L. McKnight believed “management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. It’s essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.” Genuine praise of initiative continues to make 3M a leader in the 21st century. A survey by Salary.com reveals that boredom and lack of recognition are two of the top reasons why employees leave. When employees are challenged and appreciated, turnover is low and motivation, production, and innovation levels are high.
A steady stream of success can make us complacent, but we cannot propel ourselves forward by patting ourselves on the back. It is strategic to invest aggressively in building a creative culture especially when competitors are cutting back. Even incremental advances have efficiency and cost benefits. Breakthroughs that are documented and measured make outcomes more predictable, minimize the risking of resources and accelerate innovation. A business with an ongoing culture of innovation builds a process whereby they can repeat development practices rather than rely on luck. As purposeful innovation is practiced, organizations can even improve on the innovative process itself. A well managed innovative culture will increase your leading edge because you will stun your competitors and wow your customers.
Larna Anderson, Artist, Innovator & Change Leader
Managing Director at The Art of Learning (Pty) Ltd