Innovation is a tough topic. It’s one of those words that is overused, over-hyped and generally misunderstood. In fact, over the past few years, a number of thought leaders published in the Harvard Business Review, Forbes and other venues have urged the elimination of the word innovation from business vocabularies.
Has the word itself become the business equivalent of cute cats and selfies?
Regardless of what you might want to replace it with, the concept is necessary even though innovators like Thomas Edison and Leonardo Da Vinci probably never used the word “innovate” in describing what they were doing.
Probably one of the biggest struggles of organizations that want to innovate is coming up with a definition of innovation that actually helps them determine when they’ve been successful at innovating.
Another thing that makes innovation difficult is that the products of innovation are not always accepted by the marketplace. This is a double-edged sword that makes everything more difficult from forecasting revenue and ROI, to identifying target markets, marketing messaging, and
Oftentimes, too, innovation can introduce unexpected supply chain problems.
Risk is a requirement
Innovation is incredibly risky business. This is why most companies are willing to let others do the innovating and then play follow-the leader. This “drafting the leader” approach to business strategy makes innovation doubly risky for innovators because just the act of innovating, in most cases, lowers the barriers to entry for competitors.
This means that once you start playing the innovation game, there is no stopping. If innovation is required to establish a market leadership position, it is also required, in many cases, to maintain a market leadership position. This innovation imperative, once it is adopted can hardly ever be set aside. Instead of playing an innovation tournament at the end of a season, innovation must become a full-time preoccupation for, well, ever.
That being the case, innovation becomes a much bigger challenge than simply allocating some creative thinkers, giving them a budget, equipping a secretive workspace in which they can make their magic, designating them the “Innovation Department.”
It isn’t pocket change
Innovation means change. Not incremental change, but sweeping change that requires conceptual shifts for both the introducers of the change and the consumers of the the change. This kind of change is messy and unpredictable. This kind of change hardly ever happens without a strong leader.
Sustaining an ongoing innovation effort requires investment on many levels. For an organization to build a culture that can sustainably support relentless innovation, the investments are substantial–another reason corporations would rather play second fiddle in the innovation orchestra.
Here are some of the ways organizations can prepare.
1. Diversity - One of the essentials of innovation is a diversity of inputs from a variety of perspectives. This means people with different cultural, educational, experiential and even spiritual backgrounds and world-views.
Most recruiting practices today are designed to comply with government mandated, politically correct diversity requirements, but the departments in charge of this bean counting approach to diversity will never satisfy the diversity requirements for innovation. This is, in fact, one of the conceptual shifts required.
2. Personal time - Another crucial factor in innovation is having time to reconfigure things in one’s own mental space. This activity is not something that happens in a collaborative setting; it is intensely private.
Measuring the success or productivity of this activity cannot be accomplished with traditional manufacturing-style productivity measures. There must be a liberal allowance for this type of personal investment in personal conceptual shifts, away from interactive and collaborative settings and situations.
3. Flexible organizational structure - Creative people have little use for hierarchical organizational structures with all the lines and dotted lines traditionally used in org charts. Innovators are more interested in results than reports and deliverables. Building this into the culture of an organization requires a leadership conceptual shift around what really matters most.
Creative people basically interact with everyone as a peer. The flatter an organization or team is, the more successful it is likely to be at innovation.
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No one knows in advance which combination of people, elements, ideas, events, models, diagrams, jokes, or magazine articles are going to be the combination that pulls everything together for the next game-changing conceptual shift.
The best an organization can do is make sure there is plenty of opportunity for these things to happen in as many ways as possible and encourage them to happen as often as possible. This sounds like a big risk, but if growth is a requirement, not being configured to support and sustain innovation is much riskier.
This guest post is authored by Ivan Serrano, a business journalist and infographic specialist located in Northern California.