Blog post

What drives business innovation?

min read

Elevating organizational performance and growing a business is about having enough fuel to go faster and farther.

In a sense the answer is easy. It's contained in the question. It's an acknowledgement and commitment to the belief that innovation drives business. Once you embrace this notion and cultivate it throughout your culture, creative thinking, new ideas, better processes, and novel programs become the propellant for business growth.

Each day we work with clients to motivate employees, encourage customers, or engage members. We think a lot about this question of how to foster organizational innovation. In fact, the Augeo "Ideas at Work" program focuses on employee innovation and is funded entirely by incremental economic benefit from savings or revenue expansion.

So what drives innovation? How can you create an environment where new ideas, fresh thinking, and novel approaches fuel your organization?

One overarching principal we have seen is that organizations that move faster tend to be more innovative. It might be a matter of survival because faster organizations burn through concepts quicker. Their employees tire of things more rapidly. Customers expect to see new things on a regular basis.

Increasing organizational clock speed goes a long way. Speeding things up may involve several structural adjustments:

  • Flattening hierarchical structures
  • Reducing silos while increasing cross-functional teams
  • Digital transformation to facilitate rapid organizational sharing of assets and information
  • Streamlining resource allocation to be more flexible

Moving faster, combined with a commitment to developing fresh ideas as a primary driver of business growth, will put you on the path to building a culture of innovation.

Wait just a minute, not so fast.
Developing an organizational framework that embraces change and encourages evolution can also become a distraction from the immediate and unrelenting needs of an organization. The consequences of "taking your eye off the ball" may conflict with the need for innovation as the fuel for business growth. That's why many companies choose to form "innovation teams" or "invention labs" that involve a small group whose primary job is ideation. This way, innovation activities don't become a distraction. This approach can be successful but too often insulates organizations from the benefit of organization-wide creativity and interdisciplinary-inspired thinking.

A well-crafted plan for innovation should include everything necessary to prevent distraction from daily imperatives, while benefiting from the "creative energy" of ideas coming from everywhere and anywhere.

Here are a few thoughts on developing a plan for organizational innovation:

Think differently about thinking different.
As a leader you need to think about innovation in a different way. To build it into the fabric of your company, you need to think of it as an essential element. As important to daily life as water, food, and shelter. Encourage your teams to do the same -- think differently about thinking differently. Once you do that, complaints about what doesn't work become creative suggestions on how to make things work better. Criticism of product features or service offerings transform into concepts for improvement.

Train your teams how to ideate.
Employees may have new ideas but are unfamiliar with the skills needed to bring the ideas to life. People can learn how to express vague notions for improvement in more concrete "sharable" terms. Training sessions in brainstorming, lateral thinking, and mind-mapping can be very important as you work to institutionalize innovation.

Engage in daily creative exploration.
The reason why some companies are not innovative is because they don't practice. Give your staff time to think during the day. Even 15 minutes can help produce keen insights or enable research activity that fosters innovation. Encouraging employees to learn something new each day is a step toward spurring innovation.

Encourage brainstorming.
Employees involved in a brainstorming session are likely to be more effective when compared to those who aren't. Organizations should create time for new ideas to emerge through suggestions, meetings, or at organized workshops.

Beware of ageism.
Older team members may feel they are experienced and don't listen to younger employees. Less experienced workers often feel their ideas are not respected. To foster a productive environment for innovation, there should be collaboration between young and old, seasoned and less experienced staff.

Push ideas to the breaking point.
Learn to push ideas to as far as they will go. Failure is essential for truly innovative thinking. Most successful innovations resulted from "productive" failures. Learn from your mistakes and remain open to making new ones. If you encounter failure, don't let your teams stop. Encourage them to continue to seek better ways.

Don't evaluate your ideas based solely on past performance.
The fact that you may have launched an idea before and it did not gain traction does not mean it won't work now. Keep in mind that for most innovations, timing plays a critically important role. Many popular products we use today failed the first time. Don't let your past attempts determine your future. Keep researching new ways to use familiar ideas.

Parts and pieces matter.
Some innovations fail because of minor imperfections. Always be on the lookout for the germ of a good idea. Process all aspects of innovation, sometimes a tiny part or seemingly insignificant piece of the core concept is where the real innovation might lie.

Most importantly, make innovative thinking a safe practice.
People hold back when ideas are judged too soon or too harshly. Create an environment where ideas thrive and are celebrated. Reward successful ideas and those who help develop them.

Most likely, less than 2% of your entire organization will make meaningful contributions to innovative outcomes*. Make sure these individuals are encouraged to further develop their skills, encouraged to share more ideas, and become evangelists for organizational innovation.

Elevating organizational performance and growing a business is about having enough fuel to go faster and farther. Innovation is that fuel, so work hard to make innovation work for you.

*Barton and Choran, TALENT WINS: The New Playbook for Putting People First from Harvard Business Review Press, 2017.

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