Companies struggle with how to innovate when their existing business is stable or growing. There is often a perception that innovation requires a lot of investment. However, it has been my experience that it is much harder to innovate in a successful and prosperous organisation than in a leaner and hungrier one.
The interesting thing to consider is what low cost things can be done to encourage innovation. Because innovation is less about money and resources than it is about mindset.
What kind of environment supports innovation?
I’ve worked in many different kinds of organisation – including large and small private sector enterprises, government, education and not-for-profit – and the one thing that flowed through is that innovation is less about resources than it is about mindset.
Environments where people are micromanaged and failures punished are not conducive to innovation – fear rarely makes people look outward to develop new ideas.
The kind of places I’ve seen innovation flourish have been ones where managers were comfortable to let people put forward ideas. Places where failure was not fatal to one’s career and where giving it a try was part of the culture.
One of the most innovative workplaces I ever worked in was a not-for-profit. We had little money but our Executive Director was a very smart woman who surrounded herself with smart people and let them do their thing. Sure, she set boundaries for us. But we were able to try many different approaches to business and technology under her guidance.
The interesting thing was that under her leadership the other managers reporting her also gave leeway to new and experimental ideas.
The other innovative workplace was a very large global multinational. Innovation was seen as part of our job there and, again the leadership of the company reinforced the message that new ideas were welcome. Funnily enough we did not invest a lot of money into encouraging innovation or into piloting the new ideas – only after they’d been proven was money available.
For me innovation is something that bubbles up within an organisation if management allows it. This does not mean that there should be no parameters around meaningful innovation for that particular company or industry. But in my experience it is management who set the tone for innovation within an organisation. If managers don’t support innovation it will be still-born no matter what innovation programs and other gimmicks are attempted.
A key signal as to how an organisation regards innovation is whether or not they celebrate their innovators. In both the organisations above, successful innovators became part of the corporate storytelling and anecdotes of their ventures became part of the corporate lore.