Putting Innovation to Work at Work

Written by Neil Bellefeuille

The elusive unicorn of innovation

From the board rooms of Fortune 500s to the farthest reaches of the developing world, I’ve wrestled the elusive beast that is innovation in many different forms. No matter what your business or product or situation, innovation is the source from which all future life is derived. In fact, innovation is essentially the practice of focusing and accelerating evolution. A process which, if left to itself, takes millennia to get a working version 2.0 of anything on the table. Like its cousins, creativity and intuition, innovation is hard to pin down and harder still to practice in any disciplined way. Why is that? Seems like it should be the fun part of our jobs, doesn’t it? Creating new things? Developing more efficient processes? Those are the things awkward high-fives are made of. So why isn’t it the apple of our collective eye?

The answer may lie in the unfortunate reality that while innovative outcomes are often exciting and sexy, the process of innovating is often just grind-it-out hard work with few tangible markers to cling to along the way. In fact, the process of innovation is essentially the act of conducting a long string of failed experiments, each one adding a building block to the structure that becomes your break-through solution. There is no road map to tell you how many of those blocks you will need to complete your work. There is just the act of building until the structure reveals itself as a better thing or process or concept. Worse yet, much like creativity, there is no guarantee that the process will result in something better. You could end up with just a pile of blocks. In which case it is considered acceptable social behavior to throw a tantrum and refuse to clean up the mess. Trust me, it’s a thing.

So on the one hand, innovation is hard, dirty work. On the other hand, it is the engine that drives all future success.

Without it, you’re riding a stationary bicycle in fast-moving traffic. No matter how hard you pedal, everyone else is moving around you and you are in danger of being left behind. The pace of innovation has never been greater than it is today. Those who master the discipline and processes required to successfully innovate are constantly evolving their business and products to meet the needs of their customers and to outpace their competition. The question is not whether you should focus on innovation, but rather how you can best focus on innovation given your company and context.

We’re going to [clap] pump your innovation program up
At its best, innovation is not a department or a project, but a cultural attitude and a defined process that is ingrained within the company, flowing alongside and within normal operations. A useful analogy for this kind of effort can be found in personal health and fitness:

As with fitness, building and maintaining an innovation program is not easy, convenient or cheap, and in all honesty it’s frequently not that fun. You have to build it into daily life to make it work. And you have to work over long periods of time before you start to see tangible results. Breaking through with a valuable innovation can be rewarding, but getting there is often slow, anonymous, painful work.

As with fitness, you will run into those for whom innovation comes easily. These are the people with no body fat who actually like to get up at 5 in the morning to get to the gym. Since life has a sense of humor, you will usually run into those types as you finish stuffing a donut into your mouth. Understand that they are not the norm, and take solace in the fact that resisting the urge to punch them in the throat is, in itself, a calorie-burning exercise for you. As hard as it may be to admit, you can learn something from them that can be translated to fit your plan and your goals. Innovation happens in different ways and at a different pace for every company. You may not need to be the next Apple to succeed wildly in your space, so take the parts that work for your situation and leave the rest behind.

Finally, as with fitness, there is no silver bullet. No fad diet. No magic pill. You want to get and remain healthy? You need to put in the work every day, maintain consistency, do it even when you don’t feel like doing it and turn the process into a part of your everyday life. If practiced consistently, innovation will yield valuable fruit over long periods of time. But the sexy outcome only occurs with a massive amount of front-end grunt work.

5 Ways to Build a Better Innovation Program

If you are going to successfully ingrain innovation into the workflow within your company, you need to do a couple of things to assure it takes root:

  1. Make innovation a core value across the company. Not just by claiming that you care about it, but by rewarding both the pursuit and capture of innovative ideas. When your employees know you care enough about innovation to pay them for doing it, it will become something they focus their time and energy on.
  2. Provide direction, but invite surprise. What are the macro factors that you believe could most impact success in the coming years? Those are the themes upon which innovation can be built. Set your employees loose to build on those themes so that their time is focused and productive toward the bottom line. Make your expectations clear, but leave room for happy accidents and invite thinking that goes beyond the defined boundaries. The next billion-dollar idea may be just beyond the horizon.
  3. Make time for what matters. Building an integrated innovation function around the way your company and employees operate can be tricky because you need to allow time for the development of future opportunities without completely disrupting team focus on current opportunities. Is flex time a good solution? Offsite periods of intense concentration? Small pockets of time within the work day? What flows best and disrupts least with the way your company works?
  4. Stay disciplined. Your company may go through long periods of time where innovative ideas simply refuse to show up. You may also go through intense periods of discovery where you can’t keep up with the pace of change. As with most things in life, staying committed to the process through both thick and thin is the only way to realize consistent outcomes over time.
  5. Empower the change-makers. In every company you will find people who are naturally wired to innovate and those who are not. As ideas begin to flow, pay attention to who is consistently delivering and give them more time and resources to create momentum. Focusing that individual’s time exclusively on innovation may or may not produce results because taking someone out of the flow of day to day business can sometimes remove them from the realities needed to successfully innovate. As you learn what works, empower those who are producing results with more time, freedom and rewards.

Showing up is half the battle
Innovation is hard. It takes time and money away from the here and now to invest in the future. Innovation introduces short-term risk. But the short-term risk presented by pursuing innovation pales in comparison to the long-term risk of ignoring it. Innovation is going to happen. The question is, will it happen within your walls and applied to your goals? Or will it happen all around you in the halls of your competitors while you are licking jelly donut off your fingers?

Time to get to work.

Originally posted on the Bulldog Drummond Blog.

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