A popular current topic in business and technology media is the perceived (or real) reduction in true innovation from North American companies. The economic crisis and higher education funding and quality issues are contributors, but there are many ways in which innovation can still be nurtured (not including hiring Wally!)
1. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations – the greater the degree of diversity, the greater the potential pipeline for innovation. Diversity based on race, educational background and age can all be used to avoid tunnel-vision and encourage 360 degree thinking.
2. “Refresh” your resource pool regularly – without fresh blood, it is hard to “prime the pump” of innovation once you’ve squeezed creativity out of your existing staff. You do not have to copy Jack Welch’s approach verbatim, but consider an ongoing process to hire new talent through freeing up the “opportunity” capital that is tied up in the bottom X% of your workforce.
3. Encourage controlled failure – PM Network this month (October 2010) has a great article on how Tata has started celebrating not only their winning projects but also their “best” project failures. Obviously there have to be some guidelines for what ideas will be launched, but an onerous work intake process is one sure way to kill off many potentially beneficial innovations.
4. Don’t force it – the best way to witness writer’s block is to lock smart people in a room until they’ve come up with some good ideas. This sounds Dilbert-ian, but that is not a far stretch from some organizations’ planned approaches to creativity.
5. Provide opportunities for lateral thinking – when staff fall into a daily operational (or even project) routine, it’s hard to think outside the box. This is why approaches such as job rotation, taking courses that are not directly in-line with one’s profession or even encouraging some constructive hobbies for break times in the office can help.
6. Don’t cut R&D or innovation budgets to make short-term forecasts look good – this is very difficult, especially for public companies, but it is analogous to cultivating crops season after season without allowing for some fallow time. This is a key advantage that private firms face over public forms – as Richard Branson said “We are a private group of companies and I can do what I want”.
7. Talk to your customers – I’m constantly amazed by how many companies navel-gaze when coming up with new ideas instead of involving their customers. Reducing the communication distance between product teams and customers is a tenet of agile practices and can help to avoid costly product development blunders.
8. Keep an eye on resource utilization – unhealthy levels of multitasking sap energy and creativity. Usually, the staff that are tasked with innovation and development activities are also the ones that are the most overworked. It is very tempting to use 100% of the availability of skilled resources, but it causes the same issues that are highlighted in point 6.
9. Have a mission – most of the significant breakthroughs we have witnessed have occurred through focus and shared vision. Ask employees from different roles and levels in your organization what the mission of your company is – if they can’t produce a clear and consistent answer take the time to develop and communicate one.
Innovation can be as elusive as finding a needle in a haystack, but using some of the above techniques could help to magnetize your search efforts!