Want the Keys to Unlock Innovation? Culture, Conflict and Structure.
By Matt Jackson, VP & National General Manager, Digital Innovation at Insight
“Innovation” has long been a hot industry buzzword — up there with “disruption” for words so commonly used that they have lost their meaning. But don’t let the marketing jargon fool you; constant innovation is critical for organizations if they’re to survive in an increasingly competitive economy.
The challenge for organizations looking to weave innovation into the fabric of their business, though, is how best to do it. How do you make space in the day-to-day to enable creativity, imagination and fresh thinking? We’ve worked with hundreds of organizations and heard about a variety of models, from dedicating a set percentage of employee time to innovation to offering incentives or sabbaticals to pursue new ideas. But I would argue that these models are destined to fail — they rely on the individual, instead of collaboration, teamwork and healthy conflict, all necessary components of innovation initiatives.
An organization looking to enable innovation must satisfy these requirements: create a culture of innovation that gives employees permission to challenge the norm and encourages a workplace that isn’t afraid to embrace conflict, and build the infrastructure to make space for their ideas. Innovation doesn’t come from a single individual coming up with a creative idea — it comes from fixing something that’s broken and encouraging employees to test ideas and challenge each other. Bringing together different perspectives is crucial, and you simply can’t have that without a full team of people working together to solve a problem.
Create the culture
Some organizations value stability and some thrive in chaos. Both can succeed at innovating if they create an environment that supports the visionaries on their team. These visionaries are often people who spot problems and dream of ways to fix them. So, the question is: Do you provide a forum for people to identify and solve problems, or do people gripe behind the scenes without ever resolving the core problems? It’s critical that people have a mechanism to raise issues, and that they are empowered to solve them.
The second critical component of a culture of innovation is not treating failure like it’s the end of the road. In fact, failing fast should be a mantra. The sooner the innovation team can identify where an idea falls short, the sooner they can iterate and overcome whatever hurdles stand in the way of their solution. Allowing for failure and celebrating efforts helps employees become more resilient and confident that their innovation efforts will continue to be recognized at all levels. After all, company values are top-down: If the C-Suite shows support for ideas — even failed ones — that enthusiasm will trickle down throughout the organization.
Build the Structure
Building the infrastructure for innovation is a separate challenge that demands leadership, attention to budgets/resources and an understanding of what’s ultimately sustainable for an organization. Identifying the right structure ultimately comes down to the size and maturity of the company. For smaller businesses and start-ups, finding your innovators is (relatively) easy. You have a smaller group of founders/early stage employees who can band together and bounce ideas off each other. It is a core piece of getting the business off the ground, and isn’t easily separated from ongoing operations. Innovation breeds the nimbleness and open communication that small businesses need to grow and succeed.
Larger or more mature businesses, however, have a steeper hill to climb. Legacy processes and complacency can creep in when things are going well, and can stand in the way of creating space for innovation. There are a number of ways these organizations can make room for entrepreneurialism. One approach is where company leadership designates small teams to look for ways to solve problems. The employees on these teams should be allowed to exit their day-to-day for a set period, allowing them to dedicate their time to their efforts and removing the tension between their to-do list and creative thinking. It requires minimal investment to allow a small number of employees to work on a side project for a few months.
Another option for a large company is to carve out more time and budget for the R&D department or product development team. We’ve even seen organizations go as far as creating multiple dedicated innovation teams:
- One that looks for disruption outside the organization to see what competitors or start-ups are doing in their space,
- Another that looks five to 10 years out to identify where the industry is going in the future,
- And a third team that looks at the shorter-term, one- to five-year outlook to determine what technology is available today that can help the company get and stay ahead of the competition.
There is, of course, one extremely important consideration at the heart of innovation: All initiatives must seek a tangible ROI. This might be a financial outcome like finding efficiencies, but could also include launching a category-changing product or helping an organization become an employer of choice. This is why neither culture nor infrastructure are sufficient to breed innovation. Culture gives permission; infrastructure facilitates real outcomes.
Matt leads Insight’s Digital Innovation team in the design of enterprise software solutions, focusing on modern enterprise applications and security architectures. His passion goes beyond achieving operational excellence and deeper into transforming organizations. Read more thoughts from Matt.