Chances are, innovation is a strategic objective of your organization, if not exactly spelled out in those terms.
It might be an overarching statement to encourage people to work smarter, or plans for a culture change program, an idea capture exercise, or even training in skills such as design thinking.
Attempts like these to layer innovation on top of corporate culture rarely translate into tangible changes in behavior or business outcomes. It just doesn't stick. Success stories are a rarity.
Why Does Innovation Intimidate Us?
Innovation is in danger of becoming the elephant in the room — in people's minds, but ignored or completely avoided.
We all know it's strategically important. After all, we are operating in complex environments now, where we rely less and less on what has been done before.
More than ever, we increasingly have to try new ways of working to fit with new markets, new clients, new technologies. Innovation is the means to get ahead, or to just keep up.
Our reluctance to engage with innovation generally boils down to two things: Firstly, people are intimidated by innovation. Yes, intimidated. "I can't come up with a new idea" — it's a way of working that we think is beyond us.
Secondly, we are cynical towards it — "what's the point of this initiative — nothing ever happens" — and we leave it to senior management or the head office to sort it out.
Except our managers are struggling too. That's why they have it as such an important corporate goal: they need the intellectual capital of their entire workforce to help them. After all, can one or two people in an organization really innovate more effectively than tens, hundreds or thousands of people?
It's a circle of inaction. Management's desire to tap into the brains of the workforce won't come to anything if the workforce sees their innovation initiatives as a waste of time.
So let's look at how we can debunk these reasons for avoiding innovation in business, and break the circle of inaction.
Look to Improve, Not Invent
First and foremost we need knowledge, not ideas, to get innovation flowing. Ideas are the end point, a product of cumulative knowledge, observations and experience.
Let me explain.
We all have innovative thinking within us, but it's not so simple as extracting it. Give me an idea ... come on ... anything! That's a common expectation from innovation programs.
The reality is that it isn't as easy as plucking an idea out of the air. Well, certainly not a fully-fledged, ready-to-be-evaluated-by-a-
You can see why idea capture exercises often fail. Ideas submitted often lack context and alignment with business and customer needs, they are simply solutions to a problem no one has clearly defined. And so they linger in a perpetual state of "your idea is very important to us. We will review and get back to you as soon as possible."
No wonder we give up.
To really give innovation a chance of success, we need to start at a different place. Not with 'exciting new apps' and 'revolutionary products' that might (or might not) change the lives of our customers, but with simple knowledge sharing.
Why not invite coworkers into our thought processes and challenges? What could we do better? What doesn't work?
It's a simple change of perspective, yet gets us thinking in a much more practical, collaborative way. We're not fumbling around in the dark looking for a light switch, we're highlighting what we know, what we're observing, discussing where we can do better, we're thinking about our customers and how we can improve their experience.
Bringing in the perspective of our customers, raising what is preventing us doing our jobs, acknowledging what others do better: discuss these critical issues. Too often they're masked, hidden by our desire to demonstrate how well everything is going in our management update reports.
Innovation starts with discussions about what isn't working and identifying the actual problems we need to find innovative solutions for. Then we can pool and share our collective knowledge about those challenges.
Make Innovation an Everyday Thing
Innovation has a perception problem. Rather than some bold, far-off, isolated, difficult-to-achieve initiative, innovation should be approached as an everyday activity, just as knowledge management or collaboration is. Because, in fact, that's exactly where it starts — knowledge sharing and collaboration.
After all, it really is as simple as using our skills, observations and experience to develop ideas that might change, improve or challenge things. When we state that we are going to be innovative, or we want ideas, it makes it seem like a one-off, or something big and difficult. On the contrary, innovation by its nature can and should be embedded into the way we work.
To make innovation more everyday, we must have permission. Not permission to 'innovate' as such, but permission to challenge, permission to think, permission to bring in and circulate new concepts.
The alternative? People keeping their heads down, their blinkers on, assuming that someone else will sort things out.
Feeling safe to challenge the status quo overcomes one of the biggest blockers to innovation — the fear of being shot down.
Conversations, whether on a social collaboration tool or in a face-to-face meeting, are still and always will be the greatest avenue to break-through opportunities. Innovation is built on conversations. They foster relationships and extend knowledge. They should be encouraged, even if there is a small trade off in time wastage.
Feeding conversations into everyday work, combined with an attitude of constant improvement, will be the biggest stepping stone to innovation you can lay.
As simple as re-focusing
Innovation is only an elephant in the room when it seems too hard, or isn't working. By re-focusing it as something achievable, an everyday way of working, we set ourselves up for success.
Sure, initially, we may not change the world. More people talking to other people may not seem like much. But it's where it all starts.
People will start to realize that they can instigate a change, and that they are actually allowed to. Rough ideas will begin to be fleshed out collaboratively, developing into something substantial or falling by the wayside, which is all part of idea development. Managers can nurture or help focus discussions.
Then there's the icing. Once this develops as a way of working, as it becomes a bona fide business culture, then you can start to introduce more strategic innovation and creative thinking initiatives. This time they will stick, because your people have already become everyday innovators.