Take a poll in your firm on whether people feel responsible for innovation in their jobs or in their departments, and I’ll offer an educated guess on the outcome. Those involved in engineering, design, marketing and product management will feel a strong sense of responsibility to innovate.  For others in supporting or operations-focused roles, the need or ability to innovate will be rated towards the low end of perceived priorities or even capabilities.

That’s a shame.  A good innovator and good innovations are terrible things to waste, regardless of functional role.

This “I” word has been a hot topic for several years now, giving rise to entire shelves of books and legions of consultants, and yet the majority of people that I connect with in organizations from small to large, tend to view innovation as someone else’s job. This view ensures that some of the best ideas and solutions to vexing problems for internal and external customers are left behind in the pursuit of the urgent day-to-day work of many employees.

It’s time to alter organizational and leadership thinking about the concept of innovation and get more leaders and people doing the right things to push out of their transactional modes in search of new ways to create value.

First, A Working Definition of Innovation for All of Us:

In interviewing individuals inside of a number of small and large firms that have successfully fostered cultures where innovation is viewed as everyone’s business, the definition that emerged was:

Innovation is solving vexing problems in unique and reproducible ways

While the continuous improvement group might be quick to claim some of that real estate, the intent of the “innovators” offering up that definition was to look beyond incremental operational improvements to solving significant problems that adversely impacted an internal or external customer group.

The adoption of the definition helped create awareness that everyone was responsible for recognizing upstream or downstream problems and pulling together the people and resources to find solutions.  Solutions include process changes, technology adoption, new products and new approaches.

8 Suggestions for Jump-Starting an Innovation Focused Culture:

1. Challenge leadership to stand-up and own this one. Leaders at all levels own the responsibility for fostering an atmosphere or working environment that encourages innovation in all corners of an organization. While there’s no simple formula for building a successful innovation culture, it starts with the simple, but significant leap of faith for leaders to say, “Yes, we want all of our people thinking beyond tasks and looking for problems to solve and new ways to better serve their customers.”

2. Promote situations that jump-start the right thinking. People don’t innovate on command, so, it’s imperative that leaders and managers create situations where typically transaction-focused individuals can step back and look at the bigger picture of their work.  Choose simple but important questions and conduct ideation sessions around the topic, such as:

  • What gets in the way of serving our (internal/external) customers?
  • What in our working environment frustrates you?
  • What are our customers telling you that they wish we could do for them?
  • If you could fix one thing about how we do our work, what would that be?

4. Create an outside-in view. Move beyond the functional four walls and invite customers in your value chain to sit down and share their insights, observations and needs.  An example might be the order-processing group engaging with sales, shipping and manufacturing to gain a better understanding of how things flow and where the opportunities are to change and improve.

5. Go beyond process and promote innovation as a way to compete.  The most innovative teams that I’ve worked around include a few marketing communications groups and professionals that found ways to out-promote, out-maneuver and out-perform much better heeled competitors, while operating on a shoestring budget.  The push to innovate, adopt new technologies and to put a spin on traditional activities to shake up the customers was a core part of this organization’s success.

6. Celebrate innovation victories. It’s fun and easy to celebrate the blockbuster new products, but the type of innovation we’re describing is much less visible to the outside world.  People are people, and the recognition that their work is making a difference in someone’s job or life reinforces positive innovation behaviors.  Don’t skimp on the opportunity to celebrate.

7. Incorporate innovation activities and challenges into professional development activities.  Making this part of the PD plan reinforces the cultural imperative to innovate.

8. More work for leadership.  Once started, the innovation machine needs care and attention.  Your role transitions from getting things going to providing on-going support and enabling capabilities.  You need to challenge yourself to step-up and recognize the need to both channel the innovation as well as to let it run on occasion.  And remember, your job is to knock down barriers.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Critics of this proliferation of innovation thinking typically suggest that too much distracts from the business of execution.  And while I’ll agree that a culture of the “undisciplined pursuit of more,” is a problem, it’s up to leadership to ensure that the intent and approach here stays true to the mission of getting more people focused on solving the right problems for the right customers. Difficult, but not impossible, and well worth the investment in leadership capital.

Art Petty provides practical, actionable guidance for solving vexing problems in marketing & sales, strategy and leadership by serving as a mentor, consultant, coach, trainer and educator for firms and professionals in a variety of markets.