Friday, July 25, 2008

Innovation Should Not be Left to Chance

I originally wrote this feature article and published it in the Spring 2001 issue of the American Electronics Association newsline. I am sharing it here...

Ask yourself, “How does my organization rate on achieving innovation? When and how do we talk about innovation?”
It will come as no surprise that certain activities, practices, and people are conducive to innovation while others act as anchors in the sand. Imagine all the individuals in your company serving your organization’s purposes. The challenge for leadership is to create an environment that fosters innovation.
We’re in the Information Overload age. Everyone in your organization is afflicted by information assault. How can you work together like a well-oiled machine when you haven’t discussed what the machine looks and acts like? This is exactly my point in writing this article. Use it as a tool to have some authentic dialogue with your team.
Innovation Framework is structure upon which to turn opportunities into desired outcomes. It involves a formal process as well as a nebulous social contract. Your Innovation Framework helps generate a binding social fabric that is woven among all of the individuals in your company so your firm can innovate reliably and successfully.
What follows are four fundamentals to explore in creating or reviewing the Innovative Framework within your organization.

Innovation requires Shared Knowledge
Human nature dictates that most people do not thrive on chaos or uncertainty. Thus, it is essential that individuals have opportunity to gain understanding. What are the desired features in the new product? What is the new business process to be adopted and why? A previous mentor of mine, and CEO of a Fortune 500 company, believed that employees needed to be informed in excess of 50 times on major initiatives. These weren’t stupid people, incapable of comprehension; they were people living in a state of Information Overload.
Because learning is often a slow iterative process, individuals must have the opportunity for re-exposure through repeated messaging and visual communications. Great visuals can reinforce innovation. Examples of reinforcing visuals include “Clearly expected deliverables” and “Milestone accomplished”. “Product attributes v. timing” worksheets are also useful for detailing product innovations and painting the big picture. Might as well provide a visible view to your innovation portfolio; chances are you have various products and services at different stages of maturity. But this is more valuable when people share the same view and can have dialogue about how to realize it or improve it. While shared knowledge is a necessary component of your innovation framework, it alone is not sufficient.

The challenge for leadership is to create an environment that fosters innovation.

Organizational Attitude can Make or Break Innovation
The attitude of the leader(s) permeates the culture within an organization. What messages are being sent from your leadership and what attitude does the social fabric within your organization reinforce? Individual attitudes of employees can retard or propel innovation. A popular motivational poster captures the essence, “Attitudes are contagious, is yours worth catching?”
Worth exploring is your organization’s attitude toward employees suggesting new products and services. Do you have an environment in which employees are comfortable making suggestions? Does your organization listen well, prioritize well? Or, does it embrace each individual idea to the point of including it in the current offering? Great ideas often come at the wrong time, serve as a distraction for the time being, and are not captured for later recall.
When the social fabric within an organization and leader are in alignment, individuals take notice – the boss is talking the talk and walking the walk. This is a bandwagon that is easy to get on and when an organization has such believers the stage is set for innovation.

Innovation Requires Action
It is not sufficient that individuals have knowledge and promising attitudes if they are not moved to action. Some individuals will be self guided, sharing the vision; others will require some help. Leaders should encourage an environment of reviewing and recognizing individual contributions that are aligned with the desired outcome. This practice alone helps to motivate individuals to move from thought to action. This also imprints that nebulous social fabric at play within the organization – individuals step up to the plate as they realize that words alone are not an investment.
A great Innovation Framework allows individuals to personalize innovation. Give a stakeholder the freedom to question, influence and suggest. Create individual measurements and deliverables that are meaningful and you have afforded individuals the opportunity for personal wins. Persistent wins form individual habit, which transforms individuals from thought to action. When multiple individuals have transformed from thought to action your Innovation Framework is beginning to foster innovation. At this point innovation will take on new life with the organization.

Innovative Organizations often start with Small Groups

Organizations do not become innovative upon command. Since individuals adopt innovation at different rates, individuals who have already moved from thought to action form an initial subgroup replete with a subculture. Members of this subculture seek comfort in their own company and naturally act to pull-in or influence individuals outside their “norm”.
A great Innovation Framework recognizes and makes use of these human dynamics by leveraging the influence of peers. Relentless focus of the subgroup on the desired outcome will help pull others into the group. Authentic dialogue concerning failures as well as success along the way will help to build trust. Peers have a way of affecting outliers that is unbeknownst to senior management. Incidentally, this is not unlike the peer effect v. parental effect on teens. In time, it comes as no surprise that outliers conform or self-select out of the process, joining other organizations in which they are more comfortable. Allowing the subgroup to recruit others into the organization is also paramount to speeding adoption and bolstering the Innovation Framework. In this way, Small Groups grow up into innovation organizations and the social fabric is woven even tighter among individuals.
Your Innovation Framework may be well defined or may be under construction. In either case, these four fundamentals should serve as discussion points among your team. Your Innovation Framework, just like product development is an iterative process. Begin with a prototype, and then define 1.0, building layers upon it as your needs and understanding evolve. Good luck innovating – there’s much to do.

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