How Leaders can Help Innovation Go Viral

Through the role Inventium plays in judging the Australian Financial Review’s Most Innovative Companies list, I get to see how a lot of organisations approach innovation. And sadly, the way many organisations approach innovation is in an unsustainable and disorganised manner. The innovations they have achieved success with have often been the result of good luck and good timing, but because of a lack of structure, systems and capability across the organisation, they are often unable to achieve repeat success with other innovations. I call these organisations ‘innovation one-hit wonders’.
Leaders can play a hugely important role in moving organisations away from being one-hit wonders and towards adopting and embedding a sustainable approach to innovation. Four areas to start thinking about are: Culture, Capability, Process, and Roles.
[bctt tweet=”Are you an innovation one-hit wonder? How can you become more than that? @amantha shares insights” username=”ATCevent”]

Creating a culture of innovation

Much has been written about how to create a culture where innovation thrives, but unfortunately, most of what is written simply does not work. Putting a foosball table in the kitchen and beanbags in meeting rooms is unlikely to transform the culture of your organisation, unfortunately. Thankfully, the topic of innovation culture is one that has occupied many academics and there is now sound scientific research that pinpoints exactly what creates a culture of innovation.
Barriers to InnovationOne of the most important factors in creating a culture of innovation is having an environment where risk-taking is encouraged. One of the only certainties about innovation is that if you are doing it properly, failure will be a given at some point in time. Not every idea your organisation comes up with will be successful, and most ideas will need significant iteration and refinement before they will delight customers. As such, you need to help leaders signal to the organisation that failure is encouraged, and to see failure as an opportunity to learn what matters most to customers.
An example of a company that has embraced innovation and failure is the Tata Group. The Tata Group run an annual innovation award programme called their Innovista awards. As well as awarding prizes to successful innovations from across the organisation, the program also consists of a category of awards called the ‘Dare To Try’ awards. These awards are given to innovations that were not a commercial success in the market, but where the learnings gained had been incredibly rich and useful. The awards have been a very successful way of signalling to the organisation that risk-taking is acceptable and that in fact, failure will be rewarded.

Building innovation capability

Contrary to popular belief, innovation is not an innate skill some of us are born with, and others are not. The skills involved in being a successful innovator are largely learned. There is much scientific research that demonstrates that with the right tools, stimulus and frameworks, every single person with a functioning brain is capable of improving their ability to innovate and think more creatively.
There are three main skill sets that you need to help your organisations learn and embed. The first skill set is around identifying customer-driven opportunities. This involves helping people understand how to observe and speak to customers in order to identify their biggest problems and frustrations. If we can identify what frustrates customers and create solutions that reduce or eliminate frustrations, innovation efforts will be successful.
The second skill set is around idea generation and creativity. Teaching people how to generate both incremental and breakthrough ideas is important, and a skill set that is relatively simply to teach.
Finally, teaching people the skills to prototype ideas quickly and leanly is important. Rather than jumping straight to implementation, people need to first understand how to prototype their ideas and test them with real customers. Getting feedback from customers will allow your organisation to learn quickly and iterate, and ensure that the innovation that eventually gets implemented is one that resonates with customers and truly adds value to their lives.

Creating a process for innovation

While terms like Process and Structure might seem like the antithesis of innovation, having a clear process for innovation is actually incredibly important. Too often, innovation is just left to chance, and in many organisations, when people have a great idea, they are unclear as to the avenues to get that idea heard (especially if they have a manager who is not supportive of innovation).
Some of the elements of a good innovation process include the following:

  • The process doesn’t start with idea generation. Instead, it starts with identifying the biggest customer needs or frustrations that the organisation can look to solve.
  • Those challenges or problems to be solved are clearly communicated to the organisation – so that everyone knows what they should be focusing their idea generation efforts on.
  • The process sits independently from the organisational hierarchy – so that it doesn’t matter if a person’s manager doesn’t support innovation directly.
  • The process has a thorough prototyping stage so that ideas don’t move straight to innovation, and potentially waste money through not first being tested with customers.

[bctt tweet=”Having a clear process for innovation is actually incredibly important says @amantha” username=”ATCevent”]

Integrating innovation into people’s roles

Finally, leaders need to play a role in ensuring that every individual in the organisation understands how innovation fits into their role. Just like with any organisational focus, if it is not clearly integrated into what people understand their role to be, and how their performance is evaluated, it is unlikely people will engage.
Consider how innovation can be incorporated into people’s job descriptions and Key Performance Indicators. Think about what sort of innovation-related behaviours you want to encourage and then recognise and reward those accordingly. These behaviours might relate to people’s contribution to solving problems, they might relate to cross-functional collaboration on coming up with solutions, or they might relate to implementing ideas that add value to customers’ lives.
So rather than just let innovation happen by chance, help your organisation take a more systematic and deliberate approach to innovation. Without this, you risk the chance of simply becoming another innovation one-hit wonder.
Join Amantha along with other leading Talent Management leaders including Ambrosia Vertesi, Ian Williamson and Carol Corzo at the Australasian Talent Conference 2016. See full agenda and purchase tickets here
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