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In my work as a marketing consultant, I’m exposed to organizations of all sizes and manners of thinking.
Over time, I’ve developed a pretty keen sense of whether or not my efforts will be successful, and one of the biggest red flags that tells me I’m in trouble is hearing this phrase: “That’s the way we’ve always done things.”
I can’t think of a single sentence that’s more antithetical to growth and innovation than the blind acceptance that some things can’t be changed within an organization.
It’s a sentiment few companies can afford to indulge, given that, according to Yale lecturer Richard Foster, “the average lifespan of companies on the S&P 500 Index has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century.” Foster’s research suggests that, “while successful companies lasted an average of 67 years in the 1920s, they typically exist for only 15 years today.”
That’s a big problem, and innovation is the solution. However, transforming an organization from innovation-averse to forward-thinking isn’t always an easy road to navigate.
“Aping someone else’s system is not the answer,” states Harvard Business Review contributor Gary Pisano. “There is no one system that fits all companies equally well or works under all circumstances. There is nothing wrong, of course, with learning from others, but it is a mistake to believe that what works for, say, Apple (today’s favorite innovator) is going to work for your organization.”
But while I can’t answer what innovation should look like within your company, I can make a few suggestions based on case studies and my experiences working shoulder-to-shoulder with some of today’s top brands.
Step 1: Make time for innovation
Employees who are stretched too thin aren’t going to innovate for you. It’s up to you to make space in their schedules for creativity and innovation.
Two classic examples of this principle in action are Google’s “20 percent time” (which has since been replaced with more focused innovation activities) and 3M’s “15 percent time to think” plan.
Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, explains why programs like these are successful, using advanced neuropsychology:
“Moments before subjects solve a tricky creative problem, a steady stream of alpha waves emanates from the right hemisphere of the brain — the half more closely associated with abstract thinking than with tightly focused logical reasoning.”
Alpha waves are generated through activities we enjoy: daydreaming, walking, napping and spending time with friends, among others.
Giving employees a break, therefore, increases their ability to creatively work through problems and arrive at new solutions.
Taking 15-20 percent of your employees’ responsibilities away may not be a possibility for your business, but if you want to make innovation a priority, you need to give them at least some space to think.
Step 2: Expect failures
Even with a focused innovation program, the ideas generated by your staff aren’t all going to be winners.
Instead of looking at these instances as failures, Ira Kalb of the Marshall School of Business suggests that they be considered in the cumulative context of an eventual success:
“If a successful product brings in $1 billion in sales, and it takes 9 failures to achieve each success, each step in the process (including the 9 failures) can be viewed as bringing the company $100 million in additional business — a positive way to look at failure.”
Taking such a long view may be difficult, especially if you can’t be confident that any successful products will result from your innovation program.
That said, treating failures negatively will limit employees’ willingness to be innovative, and should be avoided at all costs.
Step 3: Create easy pathways for innovation
I love the example of 3M, not just for their focused innovation time, but for their “Champion” system that helps lower-level employees send their best ideas up the management hierarchy for review.
If you espouse innovation, but then fail to act on any of the ideas presented to you, employees will get discouraged.
After all, why put any effort into brainstorming new concepts when they’ll never see the light of day?
I try to do this in my own work; taking ideas on new services our agency can offer from every member of my staff.
I can’t claim that I’m always as receptive as I could be, but I try to keep in mind that it was a team of employees — not executives — at 3M who used their “15 percent” time to come up with the idea for the Post-It note.
Step 4: Encourage activity
I don’t know about you, but my most creative ideas don’t come from sitting in my office, staring at my computer screen.
I’m most innovative when I’m up, moving around and being active. And research backs me up.
One study, published in the journal Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, found that people who regularly exercise performed better on tasks requiring different types of thinking than those who were more inactive.
In summarizing the study’s results, researcher Lorenza Colzato shared that, “Exercising on a regular basis may thus act as a cognitive enhancer promoting creativity in inexpensive and healthy ways.”
Get out for regular walks, have meetings on the go or offer standing or treadmill desks to keep employees engaged.
Move your body to move your mind, and you’ll find innovation in your organization easy to come by.