Innovation management provides an engineered, process-based approach to innovation: a purpose-built framework designed to extract innovative ideas and turn them into products and services that will leapfrog the competition. 

But in reality, how often do these big ideas occur, these 'Eureka!' moments that we can capture using our Innovation Management framework?

Before jumping into innovation management, businesses need to create environments that support the following:

  • curiosity — a desire to learn new, unknown or abstract things
  • relationships — building new connections, and being able to strike up conversations
  • safety — an environment of trust that encourages open conversations and the challenging of conventions

These elements can be encouraged in physical spaces as well as virtual. Collaboration spaces and social collaboration software are just simply tools to deliver what we ask of them. We just have to know what that is and be empowered to do so.

Innovation management processes too often fail to consider this environment in which the big ideas are meant to form: the culture of the everyday workplace.

Culture Defies Management

Innovation frameworks leave out questions of culture because culture can’t be managed in a traditional way. It’s a natural, collective display of behavior in response to a set of shared circumstances and needs — emphasis on "natural." 

So as human beings who desire to manage and engineer everything, how can we create something as natural as an innovation culture? And more importantly, as impatient, target-driven businesses, where do we even start?

Let’s be clear here: all we are trying to do, ultimately, is encourage conversation.

Designing Conversations

So where do people naturally congregate and talk?

For lunch, for coffee, for cake — basically anywhere that isn’t in front of their computer. Businesses can take a prescriptive approach to creating these kinds of moments by employing environment engineering.

Environment engineering takes a page from the commercial design handbook. Enter an IKEA store looking for plastic cutlery for a party, and you end up with an entire kids bedroom! The store designers specifically crafted the room to "help" you make a purchase you didn't expect.

In short, by thoughtfully adapting the environment, we can encourage desired behaviors. Applying this in the workplace is about understanding how and where the desired behaviors naturally occur. 

Where some businesses fail with environment engineering is by designing specific "collaboration rooms," which, while handy for taking a mid-day map, do little in terms of encouraging the behavior they're meant to promote. 

This is the physical equivalent of turning on an enterprise social network and expecting people to use it — with no clear purpose for either, they remain untouched.

Trying to force collaboration for collaboration's sake is unnatural. Effective, proven solutions come when we create environments where people actually want to meet and talk. You may have these in your office: a coffee machine, a coffee shop or even a full dining venue. 

Unlike in the past where a workplace canteen was specifically a place to eat subsidized food, these places are aimed at getting staff to stop and talk to each other. Some organizations will make you walk through these areas whenever you leave your desk. They engineer your route to the door, even to the bathroom.

Creating an Environment of Permission

Engineered solutions aren’t always necessary: by encouraging staff to get together and take their time over lunch, or by putting on social events during the working day, businesses can facilitate conversations between colleagues.

Like IKEA, we want to encourage the spontaneous events. The connecting of people, the meeting and mingling of ideas.

More importantly than the space to meet, we need permission. Permission to stop, to converse and to think big-picture. Senior management needs to lead the way here by visibly and proactively joining in and making a genuine effort to join the conversations when possible.

When you walk into an Apple store you are always greeted by passion for the product. And that is clearly the intention. It’s a clever component of the brand.

Learning Opportunities

My favourite café also deliberately creates the environment that appeals to me, whether it’s the choice of newspapers in the rack or the music that they play — all carefully considered choices to create the desired culture.

Introduce New Influences

Working in an environment that has a buzz of creative energy definitely encourages innovation. Conversely, if we’re surrounded by a room full of silent, heads-down types, then that’s the sort of person we tend to become. 

A simple, effective solution to this is to mix things up: mix teams and roles. If you don't have the authority to do this, then try swapping people over for meetings. Having someone from a completely different part of the business at a team meeting can prove enlightening. What are they doing? What does their client expect? Just having them there sharing some new experiences brings in some lateral thinking.

Secondly: move around. While some may protest this suggestion — my desk is my castle — sitting in new places allows us to make new connections. Strike up a conversation. And please DO NOT email the person sitting next to you when you can ask the question directly.

Above All, Show the Destination

Implementing any of the above tactics will likely result in nothing unless we have a clear vision of the end goal. 

IKEA wants you to pick up more than you intended on your way to the checkout. Apple wants you to make a quick decision to buy a high-end product - quickly excited, or rapidly terrified by gushing over-enthusiasm.

To build an innovation culture, we need a vision that gives us permission to challenge the norms, permission to fail and permission to continuously improve.

Vision statements can be muddled, prosaic, robotic or even worse, speak only to the needs of shareholders. What we need to work towards is the reason why our customers think that we’re great. 

Keep it simple and convey the raw emotion — how do we want our customers to feel? Imagine a customer sitting at our project meeting, would they be impressed? It's all about the customer, so use that to convey to staff a strong vision as to why they're innovating.

And once again, to get to this destination, senior and middle managers must be proactively involved, living and breathing the vision. 

Yes, catalysts can help. But to shape change in a long-term, sustainable way, our leaders have to lead the change. Without this, all we are engineering is a wall, an insurmountable wall that separates us from the opportunities that can turn into innovation. 

Engineering innovation is not actually building anything. It's about demolishing any and all structures that separate us. It's about being less efficient on tasks by tearing down cubicle walls and letting us imagine more about what we could do differently for our clients.

Title image by Drew Patrick Miller

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