Innovation is essential Not Accident
For entrepreneurs and small business owners, innovation is essential. It differentiates them from their similar-sized competitors, and it’s what allows them to compete with much larger organizations and still thrive.
Large corporations also prioritize innovation, which is one reason they frequently acquire smaller, more agile companies. Braintree, whose founder sold the company to PayPal several years ago, is a prime example of this. And while energy company Ameren hasn’t acquired a startup, its partnership with UMSL Accelerate and others to power an accelerator is further evidence that corporations view startups as the innovation hubs they are.
“Through our involvement in the Ameren Accelerator, our approach to innovation is evolving,” says Warner Baxter, Ameren’s chairman, president, and CEO. “There’s a sense that we are always learning — we are never done. We share the belief that if you move forward with an innovation technology initiative, you don’t have an end.”
With well-established companies and startups all making innovation a priority, it’s obvious that it’s imperative — but how to inspire it is much less apparent. Innovation rarely happens on command; rather, the key lies in your culture. You can begin inviting innovation by taking these four steps.
1. Encourage a culture of open collaboration.
You never know where in your organization the next great idea will come from. Post employee Vernon Herzing started out working summers in the cereal company’s factory, and he was the manufacturing facility manager when he came up with Honey Bunches of Oats by playing around with different cereal mixtures on a Saturday afternoon at home. That hardly seems like the recipe for creating a popular new cereal, but Post still makes the blend today.
Be transparent, and keep everyone updated on what’s going on in different departments. This will ensure you’re truly utilizing your organization’s brainpower. For instance, if you’re experiencing cash flow problems, share your financial situation with all of your team members. This encourages everyone, from the CFO to the office manager, to contribute the money-saving (and -making) ideas your company will need to survive. Ultimately, embracing radical transparency and collaboration will help you transform your business.
2. Provide time for employees and you to do something creative.
Innovation takes time, and if your employees are working around the clock on designated projects, they’ll never have the time necessary to dream up new ideas. Plenty of well-known companies give employees time to innovate: At 3M, employees are encouraged to devote 15 percent of their working hours to cultivating innovative ideas that excite them. Not surprisingly, this tactic creates a happier, more satisfied workforce, and it can also generate significant revenue as in the case of 3M’s invention of the Post-it note.
Similarly, Google employees are given the freedom to devote 20 percent of their time to side projects that intrigue them. While your company might not have the resources to grant employees this level of freedom, you can still provide some time during work hours to encourage them to think outside the day-to-day confines of your business.
3. Cultivate your team’s innovative traits.
The idea that some people are born innovators is a common misconception, according to a research paper by Victor Poirier, a professor at the University of South Florida’s Institute for Advanced Discovery & Innovation, and his co-authors. In fact, they say that almost everyone has some innovative traits, but in many cases, they’re underutilized — or not utilized at all. A capacity for abstract thinking, a certain depth or breadth of knowledge, a sense of curiosity, and a willingness to take risks all indicate innovative potential.
When you see these traits in your team members, make a concerted effort to cultivate them. If members of your marketing team are curious about the more technical aspects of website creation, for example, indulge this curiosity by pairing them with developers for a day or two each month. The results of an experiment like this may surprise you.
4. Ask the right questions to maintain your sense of purpose and passion.
Asking the right questions can help you zero in on your true purpose. Obviously, money dictates many of our actions, but it’s a valuable thought exercise to imagine if it didn’t. If money were no longer a priority, what would your business be focusing on? The answer here is incredibly important; whenever possible, you should try to point your company in this direction.
Passion is vital, and innovation can’t occur without it. The road to innovation is paved with repeated failure, and even the most dedicated team members will find it difficult to travel this path without a certain degree of enthusiasm for the work they’re performing. Steve Jobs once said, “It’s the intersection of technology and liberal arts that makes our hearts sing.” Find what makes your own heart sing, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming an innovator.
Innovation has long been viewed as an accident, but the moment of epiphany is only a tiny part of a much bigger story. In reality, innovation has to be nurtured, and if you take the steps to develop a culture that invites innovation, you’ll be benefiting from it in more ways than you ever thought possible.