Step One in Cultivating an Innovation Culture

by Matthew E May

Step One in Cultivating an Innovation CultureWhen I speak to groups or meet with prospective new clients, one of the most frequently asked questions I field is: What’s my first step in creating a culture of company wide innovation?

I love the question because I believe that innovation must occur at every level of the company. Now, that doesn’t mean (necessarily) that the receptionist is going to create your next breakthrough product. But it does mean that everyone must look for and find a way to do their work better than it’s ever been done before, to look for and find new and better ways to deliver value to customers, and to do that at as often as possible, even every day.

For many companies, and perhaps even most, I believe there’s a pre-step: understanding that innovation is everyone’s job. Think about it: where does the greatest cumulative potential reside? On the front lines. Not in the C-suite. There are simply more people on the front lines, more working with your system every day, more interacting with and serving customers daily. So it all starts with understanding that building a portfolio of cross-company ideas is like building any other high-performing portfolio: it’s a numbers game.

The challenge then is how to draw out the creative power of people in an organized, systematic way that provides a safe haven for everyone involved, declaws the fear of failure, and begins to embed a real discipline around finding and solving problems. That’s the first step.

My suggestion is to shy away from big programs bent on massive disruption at first, and start with a single team—one manager and a natural work group. Let’s say that manager is you. (The strategy is the same whether you’re CEO or a first-rung supervisor, but from my experience, change spreads and happens faster at the front lines.)

You now strike a deal up front. Meaning, you agree to to say “yes” to your team’s idea or solution, one they choose, if it meets the right criteria:

  1. The team is to work in the general territory of something you feel needs attention—something of concern or that clearly advances a current business objective. (It’s probably something that keeps you up at night).
  2. The idea theme must concern something within your base of responsibility, power and control—something you can sanction immediately without further approval.
  3. The team is to develop a no- or low-cost solution that can be piloted quickly.
  4. The team works on a problem they all touch and have working knowledge of.
  5. The project must result in a clear value enhancement: quality, cost, speed, etc.
  6. The project is an experiment, and nothing gets broad execution until the learning is captured and there’s a compelling case for feeding it forward.

But—(you knew this was coming!)—there are a few don’ts (many of which become irrelevant once you become a competent innovator):

  • Don’t address an area where there is no consensus on the issue’s importance to the company or customers.
  • Don’t head for an area lacking good visibility.
  • Don’t work on something where results won’t show up for several months.
  • Don’t pick an area fraught with controversy inside the company.
  • Don’t select an area lacking strong interest.
  • Don’t select something beyond the control of the team.
  • Don’t target an issue already undergoing study or change.
  • Don’t use this as an opportunity to execute an already developed solution.
  • And here’s the big one: don’t head for anything that doesn’t play to the team’s real strength.

As the manager and champion, you’re NOT part of the problem-solving team. You’re the sanctioning body. A big part of your role is answering the two questions that will be foremost on their mind: Why am I here? and Why are we doing this? So you need to provide the context, issue the challenge and convey the importance of the team. You need to talk about the importance of improving things for your customers.

One of the best ways to do all of that is to talk about the gap between today and tomorrow, as you see it. Tell the team why they have been chosen. Tell them the scope and direction of where you’d like them to exert their best thinking. Tell them that you have no preconceived solutions, that the specific problem addressed or project chosen is up to them, but that you’re looking for a simple, inexpensive solution that they can easily test out quickly.

Tell them that their engagement and thinking are more important than the outcome, and that the goal is to learn. Tell them they will run the test of their own solution and report the results, that you’re not looking for just a recommendation. Tell them that you look forward to hearing their idea, and how it worked or didn’t work in the real world. Show your appreciation in advance for the hard work.

These are some of specifics behind how I answer the question of how to take the first step in building a culture of everyday innovation: one team at a time, one manageable idea at a time.

The key is local autonomy.

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Matthew E MayMatthew E. May is the author of “IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing.” He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are ‘elegant’ – a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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