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Got Innovation?

How to foster a climate that supports innovation

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Today, I spoke with a man whose business card identifies him as the Vice President of Innovation for his company. I asked him what a VP of Innovation actually does. "I keep this company in business", he replied. He went on to explain that without innovation the company would fail and go out of business.

Businesses that don't grow and change just shrink and go away. We saw a classic example of that recently with Hostess Bakeries, the makers of Twinkies(tm) and other snack foods. A company that has been a mainstay in the American food industry for generations is gone. Management and Labor are both pointing at each other as the reason the company went bankrupt, but the real reason the company failed is because they did not innovate. The market for their products changed and they either did not or could not change to keep up.

Here are steps you can take to support an innovative culture in your company:

Allow Failure

This is listed first because it is the most critical step. If the members of your team are afraid to fail they will not try new things. If they don't try new things they can't be innovative. Thomas Edison was one of America's greatest innovators. He was not afraid of failure. Reportedly, he tried more than 6,000 different materials before he found the right filament for the electric light bulb. He did not consider them failures, but rather as proving 6,000 materials that did not work.

Encourage Communication

Break down silos so everyone has the opportunity to get together. This can happen at lunch or on the softball field just as easily as in a conference room. This cross-functional conversation spurs the imagination of each person and lets them learn from the skills of the others.

Remember that communication is a two-way street. It's important to listen as well as speak. Don't let the extroverts in your organization drown out the input from the less outspoken team members.

Know Your Market

There is no point in developing an innovative way to make better buggy whips. Find out what your clients and your industry need and find innovative solutions to those problems. Use a SWOT analysis of your competitors, your own company, and your industry to highlight opportunities for innovation.

Experiment

Google has a 20% doctrine. This lets employees spend twenty percent of their work time on projects that interest them personally. It encourages them to try different things. This kind of unstructured, but controlled, time supports their innovative culture.

Use People's Best Talents

So often we put the right person in the wrong job. Someone who is struggling with an inappropriate job may want to spend more time innovating, but in reality will have to spend too much time and energy trying to succeed at their assigned job. Putting an introvert in a spokesperson role, for example, is a mistake.

Have Fun

Allow some time during the day for fun. It can be spontaneous or planned. Nerf(tm) wars, cubicle golf matches, even video games in the break room give employees a chance to relax, refresh their minds, and resume work in a more innovative frame of mind.

Bottom Line

If you want your company to be innovative and grow, you have to create a company culture that supports and encourages innovation. Your company (or department, group, or team) has a lot of smart people. Encourage them to be imaginative, give them permission to make mistakes, and give them time to just sit and think and you will see substantial increases in their innovativeness.

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