Innovation is something most companies aspire to incorporate into everything they do, yet very few companies are successful. It is incredibly hard to predict where the next innovation will come from, but companies can build the right culture, platforms, and processes to increase their odds of innovating consistently.
As with most things, it all begins with building the right culture, a culture that enables an idea democracy.
Build a “maker” culture with a bias towards experimentation
“Our success at Amazon is a function of how many experiments we do per year, per month, per week. Being wrong might hurt you a bit, but being slow will kill you. If you can increase the number of experiments you try from a hundred to a thousand, you dramatically increase the number of innovations you produce” – Jeff Bezos.
You won’t hit gold dust unless you constantly experiment and embrace failure. Enable staff to carve out enough time to explore, be curious, and enable a “maker” culture with a bias towards execution. Ideas are not useful unless you execute well.
“James Dyson built 5,127 prototypes in his coach house on a farm in the Cotswolds before launching the first bagless vacuum in 1983. “
Hire right – Hire talent that brings in diverse perspectives and enable them to challenge the status quo. As companies grow, there is a push to maintain the status quo. Leaders should surround themselves with professionals with a bias towards action and with an ability to question and be obsessive about the needs and interests of their customers.
Process or the lack of it – Along with building the right culture and hiring the right talent, kill red-tape, and any process that slows down or stifles innovation. Companies mean well when they try to add processes and governance models around innovation, but more often than not, they create a bureaucratic nightmare. Figure out the fastest and most efficient way to evolve an idea into something tangible and bubble it up to the decision-makers. Embed innovators in all layers of the ecosystem and make decisions as quickly as possible.
Enable bottom-up innovation – Innovation can come from anywhere irrespective of levels and years of experience. Companies often prioritize ideas based on who’s proposing them instead of looking at the merit of the idea. Hierarchy has no role to play in innovation. While it’s possible to innovate top-down, the vast majority of your innovation will be bottoms up and can come from any part of the organization.
My favorite example of bottom-up innovation comes from WL Gore.
“Gore’s guitar string business is an oft-told example. It got its start when Dave Myers, an engineer principally engaged in developing cardiac implants, put PTFE on his mountain-bike cables for a grit-repellent coating. Pleased with the results, he thought it might also work for guitar strings, which lose tonal qualities as skin oils build up, and decided to use his dabble time to pursue the idea, though Gore had no products in the music industry at the time. Based in a grouping of ten plants, he pulled together a team of volunteers that spent the next three years working on the idea, without ever seeking formal endorsement. That required finding low cost ways to experiment. They hit pay dirt with a string that held its tone three times longer than the industry standard. Today, Gore’s ELIXIR guitar strings outsell competitors’ two-to-one.” – From the Future of Management by Gary Hamel (more here)
Build the platforms that can support innovation – In the era of remote work, innovation in the digital space doesn’t require proximity. Innovation is moving to the cloud, and innovators are collaborating across shores to build differentiated products and solutions. Companies should look at building platforms that can democratize innovation, enable free flow of information, break barriers, and enable passionate professionals to collaborate irrespective of levels, seniority, and skill.
Your best bet as a company is to build the right culture, hire differentiated, opinionated and diverse talent pools, enable a marketplace of ideas, cut out all the red tape and enable the evolution of fragile ideas into tangible solutions that can be valuable to customers.
Remember, if you don’t do it, somebody else will.