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Maximizing innovation for success

by Heidi Reinke -€” last modified Aug 08, 2013 04:54 PM
The concept of innovation sounds simple—coming up with brilliant new ideas that can add to the company's bottom line—but there are many factors that go into creating and sustaining a culture of innovation.

According to Booz & Company's 2012 Global Innovation 1000 survey of 700 companies and 12 senior innovation executives, just 43 percent of participants said their efforts to generate new ideas were highly effective and only 36 percent felt the same about their efforts to convert ideas into product development projects.

In today's global and wired world of business, innovation is a fundamental necessity to maintaining a competitive edge.

April Spivack
April Spivack

"Innovation is absolutely critical to the functioning of today's organizations—it's one of the most important investments a company can make," said April Spivack, management and human resources professor with UW Oshkosh's College of Business. "There's no secret that we are in a state of constant change. For example, technology is out of date before it's released. Businesses need to place a priority on innovation to stay ahead of the challenges posed by an ever-evolving business climate."

Innovation is not necessarily just the new products you see on store shelves, but new ways of doing the things we've always known, says Cheryl Perkins, of Innovationedge, a Neenah-based innovation consulting firm.

"Innovation helps organizations accelerate the delivery of new products and services and creates a sustainable competitive advantage."

Spivack recommends a number of ways business owners can maximize innovation dollars:

Start with your strategy. Spivack cites Booz & Company, which says successful innovation needs to be part of a company's regular practice or operating model with a variety of consistent, manageable, idea-generation practices.

Commit time and resources. Innovation is not a small investment and those resources need to be invested to include adequate processes, tools, business capabilities and culture that support innovation and creativity. Make innovation part of the workday and ensure there are resources to support the time required for innovation.

Investigate different methods of innovating and find the best fit for your organization.

"I think many leaders believe there is a one-size-fits-all formula for innovation," Perkins said. "Not true! The biggest challenge is finding that model that is unique to the company or organization."

Different innovation methods may be a better fit for an organization than others.

"With incremental innovation, you might work with innovating within existing product lines to adapt your products or services to the needs of your current customers," Spivack said. "Some companies may also consider disruptive innovation with a smaller, off-site, think-tank type of group that looks at new breakthrough ideas within their industries."

Encourage experimental thinking from the top down. The corporate culture fostered by executives and managers should allow employees to contribute new ideas and express those ideas openly and without negative repercussions.

"Often in a weak or struggling economy, activities that promote creativity are the first things companies cut back on or greatly reduce," Perkins said. "What a tragedy! We need to continually equip our teams to think outside the box to come up with innovative solutions in many areas. When I work with other CEOs, I take stock of what their leadership teams are doing to promote these activities, and often times there is room for expanding on what they've already tried."

UWO's College of Business leaders recognize the value of innovation. A portion of the new Executive MBA, beginning in fall 2013, will be devoted to the topic of innovation—from both a structural perspective and a process perspective.

Learning in the Executive MBA will focus on the culture of the organization and the role of leadership for innovation, matching business strategy to innovation strategy, using your business units to enhance innovation and becoming a champion of innovation.

Hire for innovation. When hiring new employees, managers often look for a “fit” with their corporate culture. This can sometimes lead to a trap of hiring same-way-of-thinking individuals and groupthink can dominate. Try hiring for divergent ways of thinking and varied backgrounds and experiences.

Reward innovation. Recognize employees when they generate new ideas. It goes a long way for innovation and employee morale.

Create the right physical environment. “There has been a lot of research that shows that colors, layouts, furniture and atmospheric qualities can be more productive for certain types of thinking than others,” Spivack said.

Look into nature-based indoor environments with wood grains, glass, mirrors, plants and green and yellow tones, which have been linked to creative thinking and restorative experiences for the brain.

The office space at Innovationedge was designed based on how employees collaborate and have included a lot of open spaces for creativity and maximum communication among team members. The office is spacious with large windows that bring in natural light from all sides and each office has glass walls that open into their main gathering area. The Innovationedge staff also use a lot of white boards and their team often draws directly on the glass windows.

Avoid the status quo mindset and create the right emotional environment. Don’t foster a “this is the way it’s always been done” or “we tried that and it didn’t work” mentality. Be comfortable with people voicing their opinions about how to improve things, from small procedural issues to bigger picture issues. Additionally, a cultural environment of real trust where employees are free to express their ideas and emotions can lead to higher levels of creativity.

Embrace failure. It is difficult devoting cash to an idea that may fail, but it is important to create an environment where employees know its okay to occasionally fail. Encourage experimental thinking and embrace and account for failure.

Explore telecommuting opportunities. While Yahoo recently changed their position on telecommuting, it is still an opportunity to both give employees the flexibility they desire and put them in different environments that can stimulate creative thinking.

“It is especially difficult in the cubical environment for workers to get into a creative thinking mode,” Spivack said. “There are just too many distractions. It may seem like telecommuting or giving specific time for innovation is being unproductive, but it’s really not. The brain needs to be able to unplug from its normal demands. That’s why people will have their great idea while driving on a road trip or taking a shower.”

The key is to balance productivity and creativity gains from telecommuting with the innovation that can come from teams working together face to face.

Leverage new media and outside sources. Social media and online tools like crowdsourcing can offer new insights to problems customers may face. Consult with business partners or customer service department to discover the top 10 issues that customers have and create a task force to come up with new ideas to overcome those issues.

“People need to have access to information outside of the organization, as well as inside,” Spivack said. “Networking with other individuals that might be in completely different industries can be helpful with innovative thinking.”

The bottom line for the bottom line—innovation is absolutely necessary in the business world.

"We're constantly shifting our internal processes and systems, so it's probably one of the most critical missions an organization can have," Spivack said.

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