Innovation and research are no longer restricted to laboratories and research centers. Today, new ideas and innovative approaches emerge every day from people working on customer-facing situations and dealing with real-life issues. It is therefore essential to not only collect these ideas, but to encourage and reward them as well. 

Companies such as Apple, Google, Samsung, 3M, Virgin Group, Nokia and Procter & Gamble have brought about significant changes in the nature of innovation itself. For these top performers, the winning equation is unassailable: “Innovation equals growth.” Innovation has evolved and taken many different forms over the last 50 years. The famous, patented 3M post-it was one such innovation. Since its invention, 3M has given “creative time off” to its employees, a concept many companies have embraced in recognition of the need to take a break in order to invent or re-invent an idea. 

As Thomas Kuczmaski puts it,

“There are inventors and there are innovators. One is creating a product with the dream of success. The other brings a product to market knowing with certainty that there is a need to be met. Understanding the difference and acting on it can provide an important stimulus for the economy in the challenging years ahead”

The profligate and competitive society we live in means the ability to dictate changes and transformation provides a competitive advantage. Managing innovation and creativity is the key to this ability. Any organization that has resolved to tap the innovation potential of its employee base is halfway towards re-inventing or potentially producing some truly exceptional solutions. 

Though many theories discuss organizational innovation, below are five simple steps to building an innovative ecosystem within the workplace. These strategies could be categorized into resource-based, organizational strategies as each of these elements includes resources as well as management strategies to encourage and inculcate innovation in employees, such that the entire organization works as an innovation platform, generating and capturing new ideas.

1. Create an Innovation Environment

Generate an environment where creative ideas flourish, not just in R&D but throughout the organization, at every level. Consumers and frontline staff are in the best position to know what is needed and the ubiquitous availability of technology is creating innovation ecosystems out of the control of large corporations. Transformational leadership rebuilds traditional organizations to create innovative organizational climates, encouraging the creativity and innovation of its employees. Methods to create such an environment could be as simple as introducing dual career ladders, mentoring programs, technical conferences, jam and think sessions, brainstorming workshops, webinars and brown bags, and think tank events. All of these could be characterized as “innovation events” or workshops organized for the sole purpose of collaborating and generating ideas. 

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2. Provide Opportunity Through Personal Autonomy

Provide an opportunity to prove the idea and surface the innovation to those who can make the change. Research has found that creative people demonstrate high performances under personal autonomy. It is important to create this opportunity by providing autonomy to employees to process their thoughts and present their ideas. Some companies have instituted "Think Fridays," an excellent example of making space for creation.

3. Build Cross-Organizational Networks

Connect the innovator to the sponsors and the implementers. Fast connections between senior leadership and grassroots have proven to be the most important enabler for an innovative organization. Collaboration across the lines of hierarchy is one of the key elements in capturing new ideas and taking action. Building networking into the culture sparks communication across the silos and encourages and inspires new ideas, with the right cultural mindsets in place.

Learning Opportunities

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4. Encourage Diversity of Thought

Encourage diversity of thought and remove limiting assumptions. All organizations need to dispel and discourage the belief that disenfranchised groups cannot innovate. All groups need to be included in decision making so they can demonstrate their ability. Lack of diversity leads to two limiting assumptions: “The dominant group is superior and so everyone should be (think) like them. Because of this superiority, it should naturally have power over the others.”

Some examples of limiting assumptions in information technology are:

  • “Only developers can do patents."
  • “Testers don’t know how to write code.”
  • “Architects generate the good ideas.”

Related Article: IT Needs to Face Its Isms

5. Focus on Goal-Based Thinking

Focus on the goal and don’t measure the performance. Measuring innovative performance is perhaps the best way to stifle it. Research has shown that evaluating the innovation performance of organizations primarily based on positive outcomes may stifle the risky experimentation necessary for progress in difficult and unpredictable environments. A very high percentage of nonprofit and government innovation occurs in spite of the odds. Pushing innovation “success” while disregarding prevailing organizational hurdles may create negative outcomes and stifle innovation performance.

As Alan Kay puts it, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Inventions happen in a culture where innovation is encouraged through culture rather than institutionalized in a process. Technological advancement and rising competition in the industrial and service companies have made innovation central to competitiveness. Organizations — particularly technologically-driven ones — need to be more innovative and pioneering than before to lead, to grow, to compete and to endure. Commercial organizations need to be efficient to survive in the short-term and encourage innovation and experimentation to survive in the long-term. With the advent of social media and technological advancements, customers have changed from being passive consumers to consumers as active participants. Organizations that have encouraged an all-round culture of innovation have seen the simultaneous emergence of new capabilities — from technologies, to skills, to global scale and new disruptive business models — and of new ways in which innovation happens. There are many theories of encouraging innovation across organizations. However, taking specific factors and specific steps to create a culture of independent thinking is critical for greater creativity and novelty at the organizational level.