5 practical ways to move innovation in your organisation from just (idle) talk to action

Organisations routinely acknowledge the importance of being innovative and agile, but very few practise what they preach. We offer five practical ways organisations can foster innovation and move from just idle talk.

To some degree, ‘innovation’ seemed to be enjoying a resurgence in our consciousness, as in recent months we have witnessed what can happen when truly innovative products come to market and the impact they can have. In the tech space, our go-to for innovation used to be the portable device market, particularly, smartphones and tablet computers; but in recent years, improvements have been more incremental than transformative.

However, with the recent release of artificial intelligence-powered platforms, organisations have been able to see their operations, and even the roles of their team members, in new and different ways. Yet, as often occurs, decent ideas end up not being pursued due to inertia and complacency – although organisations insist that they welcome innovation and people thinking outside the proverbial box.

The sad truth is that many organisations, although well-meaning, have not put any systems in place to support innovation. Hence when someone makes a suggestion, either they are given every reason why it cannot be pursued, or it quietly dies a natural death as no attention or resources are allocated to investigate or develop it.

For organisations that are serious about innovation, much has been written about how it can be achieved. However, many of the recommendations seem to take an arms-length approach that is not practicable and so might be more suitable for large enterprises that can flesh out the broad guidance provided. In this article, we share some practical advice to foster innovation in organisations.

1.  Create a sandbox for ideas to be tested

A top recommendation that is usually made is to make innovation core to the organisation’s culture. However, this is often interpreted as saying the right things, such as, “Innovation is a key pillar of our company culture”, and not the actions taken would demonstrate how seriously the organisation takes innovation.

To that end, and if organisations are really serious about innovation, we recommend that a sandbox or idea lab be created that would allow ideas to be explored and tested. A successful idea lab would be underpinned by an appropriate framework, a budget, and a clear understanding of how new ideas can be supported, and how team members can access that facility.

The sandbox component is considered especially important, as ideas need to be brought into the real world and need to be adequately supported in that phase. So, developing minimum viable products, testing, iterating and even abandoning products are all necessary experiences, which an organisation that says innovation is important to it should be able to demonstrate.  

2. Be knowledgeable about trends and developments

Among micro, small, and medium enterprises in particular, it can be surprising how little attention they seem to pay to trends and developments in their industry. To be fair, depending on the country or region where organisations are located, there may not be much available in terms of trade publications that regularly share industry insights and market intelligence. However, these are often the same businesses that are not analysing and leveraging the data they have in their possession, and so are not using that intelligence to inform their decision-making.

To better understand how your organisation may need to evolve, pay greater attention to the data, which internally, could include sales, marketing, fulfilment, and customer care. Also, spend some time understanding what might be the pain points or bugbears that clients or customers are experiencing. These could point to inefficiencies in your organisation, growing changes in customer or client behaviour, or even challenges they are experiencing that your organisation may be able to solve.

3.  Take advantage of emerging technologies

Similar to not paying enough attention to market developments and trends, many organisations are reluctant to explore new technologies or platforms and prefer to stick with the status quo – even though it might not be serving them optimally. Often, there can be a sense that to ‘try’ a new technology or platform means committing to it, but that is not the case.

A distinct benefit of trying out new offerings is that you and your team become more aware of what is available on the market, because although your organisation may not be using it, your competition might be doing so. Second, these new technologies and platforms may be offering a better or more efficient way of executing certain functions, or may even be providing new capabilities and services your organisation did not know it needed. In other words, keeping an eye on what is available on the market and being prepared to try them out can spur creativity and innovation, whilst also helping your organisation to evolve.

4.  Encourage multidisciplinary teams

Within an organisation, there will be problems specific to a department or functional area for which the domain expertise will be essential to create solutions. However, there will also be problems that could benefit from having input from diverse departments and areas of expertise.

To the extent possible, a multidisciplinary approach should be encouraged, especially when trying to address issues internal or external customers have been experiencing. For example, it may be useful to include representatives from all of the functional areas that contribute to the delivery of a particular service to customers – even if they do not engage with customers directly. Their insight may still be beneficial, as they could propose internal efficiencies or ways to finesse the service or how it is promoted to improve the user experience.

5.  Allocate time for ideation and problem-solving

Finally, and consistent with organisations demonstrating the importance of innovation and their commitment to fostering it, they also ought to allocate time for their employees to ideate and problem-solve. All too often, organisations expect their employees to spend their time executing their key functions. Brainstorming, experimenting and running trials can be considered idleness, and can be frowned upon and result in employees being penalised.

When innovation is considered a priority in an organisation, similar to how we ought to approach life where we make time for that which we consider important, organisations need to allocate time for innovation. For example, it is well known that for nearly 20 years, Google has allowed their employees to spend up to 20% of their working time on “projects that show no promise of paying immediate dividends but that might reveal big opportunities down the road” (Source:  Inc.). This initiative is still active and has been the source of some of the significant and innovative advances of the company, such as Google News, Gmail, and AdSense.

Although allowing employees to spend up to an entire workday on projects that have no immediate promise might seem a bit much, the principle remains. It is crucial that employees are able – and are encouraged to spend time nurturing their creativity, and identifying and trying to solve problems that can benefit the organisation in the future.

Image credit:   Kvalifik (Unsplash)

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