The harsh truth of innovation is that it’s fundamentally challenging to any organization. It questions an organization’s core beliefs, and it casts into sharp relief the decisions leaders have made, the alternative paths they could have pursued and the myriad options that lie ahead.
But everyone wants to innovate, and the truth is, innovation is necessary in any growing business. No matter the industry or field, the competitive landscape is continually changing and the “old” ways no longer suffice. Yet committing to, developing and accepting true innovation is hard.
Think of it this way: Introducing innovation is like introducing something new into the human body. An organization has the same basic choices as an individual’s immune system: Dismiss, destroy or accept. Here are five key strategies for organizations working to accept — and even embrace — innovation:
In just about any large group striving for innovation, there will be people who are resistant to change. These team members will look for reasons that innovation could be bad for the company or bad for them individually. They spin elaborate narratives of resistance and dig in their heels. That’s hardly an ideal environment for innovation, which is why leaders should be hesitant to innovate by committee.
When innovation is done right — when the organization is building cool things and improving people’s lives — it challenges the foundation of the business’s operations, and the ways team members have traditionally approached their work. Management’s strategy for bringing people into that process is critical to a company’s short- and long-term success.
The bigger the organization, the harder innovation becomes. With just a handful of entrepreneurs in a garage, everyone’s innovating. But as an organization grows, dividing into separate departments and divisions, silos begin to form, creating new organizational challenges to solve and new behavioral tendencies to overcome.
To drive successful innovation, a core group of leaders must clearly define objectives and create a vision that’s aligned with those objectives — then share those objectives with the team as a whole to ensure every project remains true to the overarching vision. This becomes the lens through which management should prioritize everything the business does.
How does a business that’s rooted in processes designed to mitigate risk become comfortable failing fast and often?
If one group thinks success is simply getting a new product out the door and another has a different aim, they’re going to be operating at cross purposes. Don’t let business units define their own success. Too often, organizations get really good at doing the wrong things with enthusiasm or solving the wrong problems well. Focus on creating the right solutions to the right problems.
In the traditional waterfall model, a business might aim to ship a product in, say, 12 months. True innovation requires a different mindset. Announce that the new product will be fully fleshed out in 12 months, but released in 30 days. Launching in and of itself is no longer the goalpost. It’s just a step along the way. For many companies, this kind of thinking will represent a paradigm shift. It’s also a huge step toward creating a culture of innovation.
Organizations typically call on the same people to solve all their problems, which prevents them from working on new ideas.
To innovate within an organization, management needs to build dedicated teams. Start with a core infrastructure group to make sure existing technologies and practices remain relevant. Next, develop an incubation team. Instead of focusing on solutions that will work, this group is charged with coming up with ideas that won’t work. Again, it’s a mindset shift to help businesses think outside the box and generate game-changing ideas. Finally, appoint a firefighting team, whose role is to mitigate catastrophe. With any luck, that group won’t be needed for long, and members can branch out into other teams.
When an organization commits to innovation, it starts looking at talent differently, focusing on drive and commitment to the vision. For underperforming team members, problems usually fall into one of three categories, each of which has a clearly defined solution: if there’s a will or desire issue, coach them; if there’s a talent or skill issue, train them; and if there’s a leadership problem, replace them.
Management can no longer grade team members on traditional revenue or productivity scales, because innovation never follows a traditional path, and can never be considered “finished.” Instead, organizations must be flexible enough to evaluate the uncertain present based on historical successes and goals for the future.
Innovation is unlike any other project. It will challenge an organization’s usual metrics, controls and systems. Evaluation, funding and measurement will all require new, creative solutions, and the ROI may not be readily apparent. That’s why innovative leaders must educate and inform colleagues up and down the organizational chart.
It’s also why organizations need to be very purposeful about when to engage outside partners. Innovation benefits from doing things fast and cheap. And partners can expedite success if an organization’s leadership is mindful of how everything connects. There’s no long-term benefit from building a “fake agile” environment. Innovate within the company’s four walls when possible, so there’s less need to plan out every detail.
Many organizations resist committing to innovation, or pull the plug too early because they believe the data doesn’t support these new initiatives. The history of business is littered with companies that stopped innovating—an organization that relies on data to drive innovation will never take the leap. Cutting-edge technologies, from the printing press to Netflix, would never have appeared if data drove innovation. Data shouldn’t be used to validate initiatives, but it can be used to derive insights that help organizations think beyond the status quo. Tap data-driven insights to generate ideas.
At its core, innovation is simply the conviction that things can be improved. And when an organization commits to innovation, it sets a precedent for others to remove barriers and fly beyond the status quo. It’s not a light switch and it doesn’t happen overnight, but when leaders map out strategic plans and empower team members to add their ideas, innovation will become ingrained in the organization’s culture and create opportunities for everyone to succeed.
Josh Team is Chief Innovation Officer for Texas-based Keller Williams, the world’s largest real estate franchise by agent count. An engineer since the age of 12, Josh has worked with Fortune 50 companies in industries including finance, travel, and advertising. Prior to joining Keller Williams, Josh was Chief Innovation Officer for Rapp and Vice President of Technology for Splash Media. In 2015, Business Insider named Josh one of the 30 Most Creative People in Advertising Under 30.
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