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Innovation is much more than simply the latest buzzword – it is a critical factor which distinguishes a business from its peers. Innovative businesses can leap ahead of the pack with fresh ideas and new products and services. Moreover, a culture of innovation sets an organisation apart in terms of its ability to adapt and respond to fast changes in the environment.
It sounds impressive but the difficult part is actually implementing a culture of innovation within a business. How can you transform a conformist business culture into one that buzzes with fresh thinking and accepts new ways of doing things? In practice, it involves several stages and requires an organisation’s commitment to innovation as well as time and resources.
By following these following five practical steps, businesses can help to nurture an internal culture of innovation and set themselves apart.
The first step involves accepting that a business’s culture may need to change so that it encourages, rather than resists, innovation.
Devise an innovation strategy that takes into account the whole organisation and is realistic in terms of the budget and time needed for the transformation to happen. Crucially, the executive team must back the strategy from the top down; management needs to lead staff by example.
Identify how the existing mindset within the organisation needs to change so that innovation becomes an integral way of doing things. As with any cultural change process, strong emotions may emerge from staff who don’t like change. The innovation strategy needs to identify ways of tackling such resistance.
Some organisations, typically those that are risk averse and are highly process-driven, may find the switch to being innovative very challenging. All the usual change management tools need to come into play – think of Professor John Kotter’s eight steps of change. Read and re-read them and then embark on your journey of change.
As with any change process, appoint a central team to take responsibility for designing, monitoring and delivering the plan for innovation. You should select the team members based on their ability to manage change and to communicate targets effectively.
The team should be responsible for creating the promotional and marketing material needed to get an innovation project underway and be responsible for all special events associated with that project. The team should monitor and report on project milestones and any setbacks.
It is no good simply assuming that if we make people more creative and innovative, an organisation itself will automatically transform into a vibrant, buzzy place overflowing with ideas.
The reality is an organisation needs to investigate whether internal barriers exist that could pose a threat to the introduction of innovative thinking.
Ask some essential questions, such as: are we asking team members to move ideas through several layers before they are accepted? If so, this may be a barrier to innovation. Can anyone put forward an idea without it being laughed down or placed in an unused suggestion box? Are we in a very risk-averse environment where new ideas will automatically fail because of legal scrutiny? Have we expected people to conform to rules and regulations for so long that they are afraid to try anything different?
It is essential you train staff to think in a way that encourages innovation. Managers and teams will be more innovative if they have a toolkit of techniques and skills that enable them to problem solve creatively.
Some examples of these tools are:
- Creative problem solving as developed and used by the Creative Problem Solving Institute. This process is based on divergent and convergent thinking, and enables the team to come to conclusions where there is buy-in and consensus;
- Brainstorming using LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® This encourages hands-on, minds-on thinking that creates an environment where there is 100% team participation and where play enables ideas to emerge and be shared; and
- Six Thinking Hats, as suggested by De Bono, is also a useful tool that ensures all views in the room are explored from every angle to create an environment of lateral thinking.
Part of the training could also include identification of employees’ natural innovation styles. This will assist with the formation of teams having different styles so that collectively, all styles are represented.
The saying that “what gets measured, gets done” must apply.
Once an innovation project’s success criteria have been set, conduct ongoing monitoring to check its progress. Put in place barometers to show how far the business has moved towards achieving key targets and what still needs to be done.
Success stories should be collated and progress communicated with staff. Setbacks should be noted and lessons outlined. Ultimately, the end goal is a culture where innovation thrives and is consistently seen through in a purposeful way to create value for the business.