I have been corresponding with a chap involved in an interesting new company in Ethiopia. He asked me the following question, “…as the team is an ad-hoc one, sometimes our progress stands in the middle of the road due to pressures and priorities from other job responsibilities.”
I hear this kind of question often. It is also sometimes formulate as “I don’t have time to innovate”. There are two reasons many employees in many organisations feel this way: mixed messages from top management and the vagueness of innovation.
Mixed Messages from Top Management
Most CEOs and their immediate underlings like to talk about how important innovation is to their companies. However, not all of them demonstrate this importance. If a CEO participates in generating ideas; personally acknowledges development, testing and implementation of innovative ideas; and accepts failure (ideally, she reward it) as an inevitable component of innovation, then employees know the CEO really means it when she talks about the importance of innovation. However, if a CEO talks about innovation, but discourages creative ideas, fails to authorise the launch of innovative projects and flings managers, of failed projects, out of her 12th floor window, then it is clear to employees that actually participating in innovation projects is a risky career move. Most people will avoid such projects and find an excuse not to have time to innovate. Of course most senior managers fall between these two extremes. However, if a CEO and other top managers really do want their businesses to innovate, they need to become more personally involved in the innovation process. They need to demonstrate that they are actively participating in their own company’s innovation process.
Vagueness of Innovation
The second reason employees are reluctant to prioritise innovation is because being innovative is a difficult to define. Consider this: if I were to demand that you go innovate right now, what would you do? If your boss told you to innovate, what would you do? Often it is unclear. The word innovate is so vague. Indeed, if you were to stop two innovation consultants at a conference and ask them to define the concept, they’d probably come up with different definitions! If experts on the subject cannot agree on its meaning, how can people whose job descriptions are about marketing, operations, accounting or sales know what it means? In my experience, the word “innovation” is too often used when the speaker really means “creative”. Having and developing ideas is about creativity. Yes, it is part of the innovation process. But it is not being innovative. Nevertheless, simply telling employees to have ideas is not a great deal clearer than telling them to innovate.
Even where businesses have clearly defined what they mean by creativity and innovation, being creative or innovative is still vague. If you have to compile the 2012 sales figures into a PowerPoint presentation, you have a clearly defined goal. You know how to do it and will know when it is finished. If you are told to spend 10% of your time being creative, then it is a lot harder to know if you are accomplishing your task. I generally think most creatively when I am taking a relatively long walk. Though most managers would not perceive going out for a walk as doing work. Some people have their best ideas in the bath or shower. Can you imagine claiming bath time as company innovation time?
Be Less Vague
If the problem is that you are being too vague about how you want your employees to innovate, then there is an easy solution. Be less vague. Top management should make it clearer what they mean by innovation and how people should do it. Do they want ideas? If so, in what format? How should they be submitted? What happens to them? Frankly, I do not think ideas should be a metric. When they become the metric, people focus too much on generating ideas for the sake of generating ideas rather than generate ideas for the sake of implementing them. I know a lot of companies that have databases full of ideas, but are struggling to innovate!
I would recommend that rather than demand the teams come up with 10 ideas per month, they be expected to submit one innovative project proposal per month. The proposal should include an outline, an explanation of the benefits the project would bring (probably profit, but not necessarily), an explanation of why the project is innovative and a description of the initial steps that would need to be taken to develop the project towards implementation.
However, my suggestion is a generic one. Instead of following it, why not use a little creativity? Define your organisation’s strategy. Now question that strategy. Is it unique to your company? Or is it so generic that it would be true of 100s of other companies? If it is too generic, you need to define better your strategy. What makes your product and company unique in your market? Why should customers buy from you rather than me? Ask what you would like your strategy to be. How would you like to be seen by your customers? How is your company actually seen by your customers?
Once this vision is clearer, then define how innovation fits into that strategy. Innovation should become a tool for achieving strategic goals. If your company makes drinking glasses and your strategy is to make wine glasses that never break, then you presumably need to innovate primarily to build stronger glasses. Secondly, you need to come up with attractive, up-to-date new designs that are nevertheless as unbreakable as possible.
Once this is done, it should be relatively easy to define what you expect individuals and teams to do in order to contribute to innovation. And “contribute” is a key word here. Your company innovates, Individuals and teams contribute to that innovation. As a business leader, you should not tell your people to innovate and hope for the best. You should clarify what innovation means to your company, you should lead the process and you should tell your employees how they are expected to contribute to that innovation process and why.
Once you do this, you can be sure people fill find time and prioritise their innovation contribution.
image credit: young businessman image from bigstock
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Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a radical new approach to achieving goals through creativity — and an alternative to brainstorming.