INNOVATE LIKE YOU MEAN IT
Todd Dewett | August 14, 2020
A lot of organizations talk about learning and innovation, but it’s just hot air. They like the ideas, but not the inherent risk and hard work. We all fawn over the maverick of the month in the business press, but are we really walking the innovation talk?
Highly effective organizations get past the rhetoric and engage the right behaviors. Like most mavericks worth the title, they know that the road to breakthroughs is littered with difficult learning moments – and they embrace that reality.
Whether you’re talking about developing new things (e.g., products, services, technologies, processes, business models) for a group, a department, or the entire organization, your task is the same: put up or shut up. You have to innovate like you mean it.
What does that actually mean? Here are a few of my observations about how learning-oriented firms consistently produce interesting innovation.
First, whether dealing with local innovation inside one team or system-wide efforts, they recognize that great outcomes don’t just happen. They arrive as a result of trial and error, experiments, and creative efforts. They usually emerge slowly, not quickly.
To make this process acceptable, they find ways to validate great efforts, not just great outcomes. They want to encourage continued participation in the face of things that don’t work at first. Engaging principled risk in the name of innovation must be an important value. So talk about it, recognize it, and even reward it.
They also use the right metrics. Tracking innovation is somewhat common (e.g., R&D spending, new products developed, ideas submitted, change projects underway, revenues derived from new products). However, for long-term sustainability, you have to measure learning too. This might include tracking degrees earned, hours of learning completed, certifications award, or skills learned. Learning feeds innovation.
You can strengthen this link through knowledge management. Information about what has been tried, what worked or did not, who was involved, methods that were used, and financial and technical information should all be captured. Later, when the team needs to engage a little creative problem solving, they should be able to easily access the wisdom of early efforts.
The strongest organizations also insist on wide ownership of innovation. Sure, feel free to specify one or more executives who are in charge of innovation. Feel free to use special teams who work offsite on hot projects. I like these approaches, but there is something even better. The real goal is to convince each and every employee that they are responsible for innovation. When they believe their ideas matter and they know they are expected to speak up – innovation is more likely.
Of course, all good learning organizations support individual and team growth. This includes access to relevant training (i.e., classroom, online, offsite), support for traditional educational degrees, access to online learning platforms (e.g., LinkedIn Learning), and thoughtful career management resources, among other possibilities. When they respect how you’re investing in them, they feel far more inclined to engage innovation on your behalf.
Finally, the best innovative firms require their leaders to lead by example. The people at the top should exemplify learning and innovation. They must demonstrate personal growth in terms of skills and relationships, show their ability to support and encourage learning and innovation throughout the organization, and show evidence that their decisions clearly support an aggressive innovation agenda. Otherwise, they look simply like people asking others to take risks on their behalf. Leaders model the way.
It’s so easy to say you support change, love learning, and embrace innovation. In fact, it’s expected that you’ll say these things. However, to make your mark, you have to go further and prove it. Make the evidence as clear as possible. Start with the targets noted above. Then find like-minded people to build your tribe. With the right team you have a real shot at sustainable innovation.
No more hot air. It’s time for a little less talking and a bit more doing. Innovate like you mean it.