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The key processes that encourage an innovation culture

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19th Jun 2013
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This article was written by Adam Smith and Liz Hill-Smith of Berkshire Consultancy.

In recent years the focus on innovation has been on the successful exploitation of new opportunities via game-changing technology.

As hugely important as this kind of competitive advantage is, this is only a small part of what innovation can mean to an organisation.

It is important to remember that some of the most successful innovative organisations were not always the first on the scene. There were many other social networks before Facebook, other search engines before Google, and plenty of MP3 players before the iPod.

What these organisations managed to do, was to reimage existing technology, and dare to try something different. If you think about all the differences between the iPod and a regular MP3 player, you will see a lots of good ideas put together to create one innovation.

What is innovation?

The dictionary definition of innovation is ‘the act of introducing something new’, or, as I prefer, ‘the act of introducing something new that adds value’.

With this in mind, every company should be looking at creating an innovative organisation, seeking to change and improve the ways they operate, respond to customers, and solve new problems, thus setting themselves apart from the competition.

By creating an environment where new ideas are explored and turned in to better products or processes, you can create an innovative company whatever your size or sector. Innovation is not just for multi billion pound organisations, it is for everybody. It does not require huge budgets and can equally be about saving money in difficult times as it can be about aggressive expansion or new products.

The move to an innovative organisation

Having an innovative organisation can be seen as an almost impossible cultural shift for many organisations, but there are plenty of practical steps you can take to start to make this happen. We have identified five levels, or ‘gates’, at which innovation must flourish – a blockage at any one of these gates can severely hinder innovation progress.

1. The Idea

This can happen at any level of the business and about any subject. In the purest sense of innovation it could be as simple as a new way of ordering stationery. All innovation starts with an idea.

The organisation needs to provide: Organisational context, the right information.
Skills that can be taught: Capturing ideas, seeing opportunities, joining up the dots, creating time (rattle room).
The person: Brings the whole person to work, naturally curious.

2. Sharing it wider

So you have had a great idea about improving the way your department works - what next? The best ideas come from teamwork and collaboration. Sharing your idea and running it past people you trust to begin with is invaluable, but once you have gained some confidence that you are on to something, do not overlook the benefit of sharing with people who may provide you with valid reasons why it may not work. A critical eye may help you develop your idea.

The organisation needs to provide: Empowering people to take ownership of ideas and take them forward.
Skills that can be taught: Knowing your own creative process, wide network, the circle of creativity (a group of people that provide different perspectives on your ideas), breaking down social barriers.
The person: Resilience, confidence in his/her ideas, can overcome negativity.

3. Line manager acceptance

Unfortunately a bad manager can stop imaginative proactive staff in their tracks, putting the brakes on or halting the innovation process. A good manager not only encourages the ideas and collaboration in his team, but then acts as a champion for his/her staff’s best ideas and innovations.

The organisation needs to provide: An easy to understand vision to guide managers, expectations of cost and time allocated to new thinking.
Skills that can be taught: Influencing skills, creating time (rattle room), promoting transparency & knowledge sharing, relationships not based on control and task, knows how to support staff, presenting business cases.
The person: Comfortable being challenged (and being wrong), belief in employees, willing to take risks, cares about the future of the organisation.

4. The processes

Every organisation will do this differently, but finding ways for ideas to evolve and to be picked up easier and quicker needs to be part of the organisation’s DNA. Here are a few ideas on what this might look like in practice:

  • Cross department teams (and budget)
  • Collection of data
  • Mentoring and shadowing
  • Job swaps, secondments
  • Collaborative technology
  • Innovation champions
  • Sharing success stories
  • Low-risk experimentation
  • Ways of capturing learning
  • Allowing exception to rule (don’t make the process too tight!).

5. Top Team

If the Senior Management Team (SMT) does not understand the importance of innovation, or do not know how to harness the power of good ideas from their employees, the innovation process is stopped in its tracks. It takes a brave SMT to lead an innovative organisation with the ability to make judgment calls on what ideas are worth taking the risk on and the right time to do it.

Skills that can be taught: Understanding the strategic need for innovation, understanding and exploring the innovation chain, giving the right ownership and encouragement, looking for innovation internally and externally, seeking information from staff, making time to plan innovation, promoting transparency & knowledge sharing, risk management.
The person: Able to take managed risks, absence of ego, don’t believe they have all the answers.

Conclusions

This is just an overview of what the innovation gates look like and the types of skills and knowledge staff need to unlock each one. Every time ideas move up through the gates and get to the top team, employees' confidence in their ideas increase, innovation networks get bigger and the top team become more open to new ideas.

It is important to mention that there are other less tangible cultural aspects at play in an innovative organisation, such as playfulness, the feeling of belonging to a company, psychological safety and the ability for the organisation to be ‘change’ ready. But we have found that when you open up the innovation gates by providing the right setting and helping employees get the right skills and confidence, a cultural shift starts to happen. In fact, when it comes to innovation it should feel less like a cultural change and more like an innovative revolution happening.

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