Innovation is such a popular buzz word these days that it has already lost some of its value. Today, every business is prioritizing innovation and trying to be on the cutting edge. Countless startups launch every day claiming they’re the next big thing—disruptive innovators who will change the world.
Unfortunately, most of these businesses aren’t truly innovative. Furthermore, the bigger a company gets, the less innovative it tends to become. That’s because even the most innovative minds can’t thrive in a corporate environment that’s weighed down in a quagmire of bureaucracy, decision by committee, and information paralysis.
Ultimately, business innovation depends on a company’s leadership—from the executive level all the way down to the smallest department and team levels.
Think about the business leaders you’ve worked with or read about. How many of them truly foster an environment that promotes innovation? The corporate rhetoric and PR script might hype the company’s focus on innovation (and believe me, I’ve written enough of them for big companies to know), but the reality is often very different.
As a business leader, it’s up to you to develop and continually nurture innovation. Here are five secrets to doing it successfully:
1. Understand the Relationship between Creativity and Innovation
Creativity and innovation are not the same thing but they do have an extremely important relationship. Creativity spawns innovation. Creativity asks “What if?” while innovation asks “How?”
When Microsoft was just a creative idea in Bill Gates’ mind, he likely asked himself, “What if every person had a computer on their desktops?” Using his innovative mind, he asked, “How can I make it happen?”
As a business leader, you need to recognize how you and your employees think. Some people are more creative and will ask more “What if?” questions while others will be more innovative and will ask more “How?” questions. Some employees will be capable of thinking both ways, and some will struggle with thinking creatively or being innovative.
That’s okay. In fact, it’s great because a diverse team is a strong team. However, it’s your job to make sure all of these disparate people work together cohesively so the creative and innovative thinkers can dream and do with as few obstacles as possible.
Keep in mind, with creativity and innovation come unique personality traits that you need to lead and effectively integrate into your team. According to Brian Collins, former Disney Imagineer and creator of WDWithMe, creative people are passionate, responsive, inclusive, curious, and emotional. He writes,
[Creative people aren’t] afraid to let emotions play a part in the creative process. As a matter of fact, innovators understand that they must.”
2. Look Beyond Technology
Today, most people think of technology when they think of innovation, but there is far more to innovation than technology! Wes Labrash of SaskTel published a great article about this very subject. In his research, he found that the word “innovation” was first printed in text in 1800, long before technology was around. He found that it wasn’t until the 1950s-1990s that innovation became so closely tied to technology.
Innovation isn’t a new thing, so don’t limit your view of it. Take the blinders off and think beyond technology. And make sure your employees do, too!
3. Build a Company Culture that Supports Innovation
Company culture is nearly as popular these days as innovation, and there is a reason for that popularity. Younger generations of workers aren’t satisfied with the status quo. They value company culture as much as (and often more than) their salaries. As a business leader, you need to develop and live a company culture that attracts the best talent, satisfies customers, and sparks innovation.
Some companies create organizational development principles that foster innovation, and every employee is expected to live by those principles. Chad McAllister of Innovation Excellence explains that 3M actually has 25 of these innovation principles which cover things like training leaders at all levels on innovation processes, setting and sharing innovation goals, and matching the company’s goals with the strengths and interests of its employees.
If your employees don’t support innovation, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board and develop a company culture that embraces and rewards innovation.
4. Know the Numbers
While it might seem like data and innovation are polar opposites, the truth is that innovation can thrive even more when it plays nicely with data. For example, data can help you identify problems that you can solve with innovation. Data can help you find opportunities, fill gaps, and make changes.
According to Alistair Rennie, general manager of IBM Business Analytics, “Almost all of the business innovation you see is being driven by analytics or engagement of some kind. There is a mass change underway, and the speed of change is unprecedented.”
If data truly is the platform for innovation that Rennie believes it to be, then you need to make sure you have access to data and skilled people to crunch the numbers and make sense of them. Numbers are useless if no one on your team knows how to extract useful information from them that can be turned into business strategies and tactics.
5. Prioritize Intellectual Property
Your company’s intellectual property is one of its most valuable assets, and protecting your intellectual property incentivizes innovation. Research has proven it again and again, but too many companies have yet to identify and protect their trademarks, copyrights, patents and trade secrets.
Protecting your innovation as valuable intellectual property not only gives you a competitive edge in the marketplace, but it also opens the doors for even more innovation. Don’t put up unnecessary roadblocks to future innovation by failing to identify and protect your intellectual property!
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