Innovation does not occur in a vacuum. Nor does it occur when different departments operate within their own silos. For innovation to become a true competitive differentiator, companies need to encourage cross-functional collaboration – bringing together a diversity of the brightest minds across all jobs and grades to co-develop transformative ideas.
While a growing number of organizations have designated corporate innovation teams (47 percent of more mature companies have an innovation staff of about 25 people, according to KPMG and Innovation Leader’s Benchmarking Innovation Impact 2018 report), you need to secure support across business functions. This includes communications departments.
Innovation and communications are two sides of the same coin. Especially in large enterprises, communications departments clarify and reinforce company goals for employees. Because the most disruptive innovation is centered around people and culture – not technology – the communications department can and should be the primary driver for making innovation a living, breathing part of your organization. It is up to the communications team to continuously and consistently convey your innovation messages, inspiring employees from all ranks and roles to participate in innovation programs and channel their inner entrepreneur. Here are five tenets for communications department to encourage and empower your people to innovate.
1. Clarify Your Company Strategy
Research shows that only 19 percent of individuals in an organization understand their company’s top priorities. With innovation’s role in a company’s survival and ability to achieve its goals, this needs to change. The communications team must repeatedly share company strategy and reinforce the role innovation plays in it. Along the way, consider how you can simplify the message so that it resonates with all personnel. For instance, create or revamp a corporate messaging document that concisely clarifies your corporate goals and links them to innovation, with examples of where and how your company is innovating. Employees across functions can continuously reference the document, and it will also help your communications team members discuss your efforts in a consistent manner, internally and externally.
2. Openly Share It All
It’s time for communications departments to push for becoming more transparent. According to a study by Employee Channel, just 16 percent of employees feel “connected and engaged” by their employers. Transparency can help bridge this gap, but you must share both the good and bad. Where is your company excelling in innovation? Where do you need help? What threats and opportunities exist? In my experience, employees know when you are dodging the full truth. To inspire them to innovate, be candid and honest. By earning employees’ trust, they will be more willing to collaborate with innovation teams and help you surmount some of your most pressing, publicized challenges.
3. Recognize Accomplishments
Twenty-seven percent of employees cite lack of recognition as a factor for leaving their company for greener pastures. As your employees innovate, take the time to celebrate their accomplishments, whether at an all-hands meeting, through a company newsletter, social media posts, team-wide email or even through a designated innovation award program. Don’t stop there—make sure the ongoing progress of innovators continue to be featured in your communications. It is also important, however, to embrace and share lessons learned from failures. These failures inspire perseverance and encourage risk-taking to make the next “big idea” work and encourage employees to weigh in with alternative solutions that your innovation teams may not have thought of, had you only shared the good.
4. Encourage Inclusion and Diversity
Because innovation can come from anyone, anywhere, anytime, you must promote inclusion and diversity in your every day communications. This not only means forming teams with people from different departments and roles, but also people with different life experiences, perspectives, socioeconomic backgrounds, genders, ethnicities, ages and more. Studies show this is particularly important to younger employees, who are more likely to stay at a company for five or more years if the organization is perceived to have diverse workforces. That loyalty and longevity can readily translate to greater engagement in company-wide innovation programs, while also producing more valuable breakthroughs. I’ve found that innovation occurs more organically when everyone hails from different backgrounds, and are welcomed, valued and respected equally,
5. Listen and Act on Feedback
Innovation requires two-way communication, so your communications team should solicit feedback from your employees and take it to heart. Often, employees know more about your products or services than the C-suite or board members because they are the closest to your customers and markets. The communications team should conduct surveys, focus groups and listening groups surrounding innovation, then relay findings to higher-ups. If employees see that you are listening and acting on their feedback, they will be more willing to commit to innovation.
Innovation requires bringing power to your people, and that begins with communications. As more employees feel connected to your innovation strategy and freed to co-develop their own ideas, the entire organization will experience stronger outcomes. Thus, communication departments are critical help to embed innovation throughout your culture, setting your business up for long-term success. Innovation is communication.
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Alex Goryachev is the Managing Director of Innovation Strategy at Cisco. For more than 20 years, he’s made it his business to turn disruptive concepts into emerging business models. Some people call him an entrepreneurial go-getter. He likes to take risks, think ahead, and make way for innovation. It’s all about his passion to create a strategy and then drive it home to “get things done.”