An Innovative Start to 2017: 10 Leadership Steps for an Innovation Culture

10 January, 2017 / Articles
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If you sense that your company is losing its edge, it’s time to demonstrate your leadership by creating a culture of innovation. Here are ten ways to get started, drawn from my workshops and keynote speeches on innovation and entrepreneurship.

These fall loosely into three categories: making it clear that you want everyone involved in innovation, defining innovation as broadly as possible; and looking for innovation where it may not be obvious, including innovations you’ve already made that are candidates for more widespread exploitation.

 

  1. Be clear that you’re looking to innovate in all areas of your business. If you aren’t explicit about this, employees will mistakenly think you’re only interested in product innovation. There are four areas I feel are always ripe for innovation: process, product, business model, and what I call “texture” (the feel of how you do things rather than what you actually do: for example, changing up the language in your autoresponder messaging is a “texture” innovation).

 

  1. Seek out “Emperor’s New Clothes” moments: weaknesses and opportunities that are only visible to those who are “ignorant,” like the young boy in the H.C. Anderson fable. You find these moments when you encourage employees to innovate outside of their areas of expertise: invite your graphic designers to critique your A/P process and invite your accountants to make marketing suggestions (I’m serious!).

 

  1. Launch a contest for “the dumbest ideas that might work.” Use such a competition to take the stigma away from innovative-but-unrealistic or awkward-sounding suggestions. For example: “get rid of our quality control inspectors” would have been a reckless and silly-sounding suggestion some years ago–as if you were suggesting tossing quality concerns to the wind. But this “dumb” innovation ultimately gained traction in some quarters, and is now part of various successful manufacturing methodologies, because, without inspectors, we may actually do better work. Offering this kind of suggestion within the protective confines of a “dumb idea’ contest allows it to come to the surface without risk to the person who suggested it.

 

  1. Augment your innovation mix with crowdsourcing. For example, if you’re stuck on how to innovate in a specific area, try involving everyone, by which I mean your internal staff and the much larger “crowd” available to you over the Internet (if you can figure out a way to do this that doesn’t compromise your IP). The results may astound you.

 

  1. Actually read the answers to the free-form questions in your customer surveys (answers to questions like “feel free to tell us anything else that’s on your mind”). You’ll find gold in these responses once you stop thinking of customer suggestions as only “problems to be resolved” rather than as being “input that could be transformative.”

 

  1. Search out innovations that have already been made at your company that are candidates for wider application, the hacks and tweaks that are already being successfully used by a single employee or department that could now be deployed companywide.

 

  1. Be on the lookout for innovations you’ve already made internally that could be turned into a commercial product or service for the benefit of the general public. Similarly, look for innovations you’ve made for one segment of your customer base that, with minor adaptation (or even just a different name or marketing angle) could appeal to another.

 

  1. Adopt my mantra of “honor thy accidents.” (Hat tip to Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt.) Don’t waste your “mistakes”; instead see if they make sense when looked at from a different vantage point. Post-it™ notes that don’t really stick all that well are suddenly magical when you realize the “not sticking well” can actually be a feature, not a bug.

 

  1. Location matters. Your tender green sprouts of innovation may take root more easily if grown, for a while, in a separate location: a different building or floor, etc. (This approach, however, also has dangers, because whenever innovation is considered something that happens “over there,” it leads to it not happening “right here.”)

 

1o. Make it clear that nothing is off limits, that you’re willing to kill your own cows–whether sacred or cash–before the competition does it for you.

 

The science man and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.

 

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