Encouraging innovation for competitive advantage
It goes without saying that great ideas make good business. And a great new idea can provide competitive advantage. Innovation is probably up there with the most overused buzzwords in business. In fact, if you read a piece of marketing material and don’t see the word innovation, then everyone involved needs a pat on the back.
Having said that, let us not pretend that innovation, in its truest form, is not critical to business success and competitive edge. But innovation is linked to creativity and creativity is famously opposed to process and structure. And yet, big businesses all over the world have innovation teams and innovation programs and innovation processes. So, if big businesses do this then we must assume it works and it must work consistently. Therefor there must be a secret, right?
Do they lock the best brains in the business away in a room fuelled with caffeine? Do they create magical ‘creative spaces’ where their staff can spend time and be inspired? Do they pour huge amounts of money into experimentation? Well the answer is probably partly yes to all these things, quality of people, places and opportunity, but there is also another thing, diversity. Diversity of ideas, and not just ideas, but also diversity of sources for those ideas.
Now before we move any further a clarification must be made. Variety and openness is good, creativity by committee is not.
Innovation proves most successful when people are involved.
Several ways you can read that statement, but there are three key elements which are proven to create results. Firstly, it is involving people in the broadest sense, getting ideas from a diverse group of people. The stereotypical ‘innovator’ personality, the person who can’t stop having ideas, who is outspoken and active and always on, has been proven false, or more accurately has been proven to not be the only personality type able to innovate. In reality, whilst these people may often be the ‘front’, there is no personality type restriction on creativity and innovation. Ability to innovate is in fact driven by several other factors which mean that diversity of mindset, of personality and background are more likely to produce consistent results then reliance on ‘the ideas man’.
The second point and the key to having this diverse team work effectively is having a team which encourages ‘involvement’ or what Google call ‘psychological safety’. Effectively this means the creation of an environment in which people feel safe to share ideas. Google found this to be the single common factor between successfully innovative teams. Similarly, research conducted by MIT has proven that the most innovative teams are the ones in which everyone in the team contributes almost evenly to discussion.
This all combines to a fairly simple message, innovative teams are not teams made up of a single ‘type’, they don’t centre around a single superstar, they are teams which work together effectively to solve problems. They are accepting of ideas in the pursuit of a solution, they collaborate effectively and deeply and work together to move the whole team towards a shared goal.
The third point to make here is that involving people must be aligned with engaging them. Without motivation or desire to solve the problem better, it is likely that it won’t happen. Make sure people are not just ‘good’ but ‘engaged’, again ‘intrinsic motivation’ has been proven to be critical to successful innovation. There is a famous quote attributed to Antoine de Saint Exupery that I will always remember hanging on the wall of a strategy director’s office;
“if you want to build a ship don’t drum up the men to gather the wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
The statement is simple, the idea is simple, but the result is powerful. Align your team to a goal and open the opportunity to solve the problem.
So what does this mean in terms of winning business through innovation? It means involving your core team and being open to ‘how it could be done’ and not always, ‘how it has been done’. It means enabling collaboration in your team and providing an environment and the tools in which all your key team members can contribute. It means encouraging an environment in which innovation is a team task and ‘having an idea’ is open to everyone. Your BD director has an idea, great! Your technical expert has an idea, great! Your tender manager has an idea, great! But, that doesn’t mean that all ideas are great ideas, it just means its ok to not have the best idea, it means having ideas and sharing ideas is great.
Build teams not afraid to share, give them a purpose which engages and excites, make collaboration easy, and watch the results roll in.