When innovation is boiled down to its most basic point, when all high-blown rhetoric is stripped back, it is simply about finding ways to improve your company. Bottom line, top line, internal, public; there is no area where improvements cannot be made, and a lack of understanding around the achievability of innovation can hold the field back. No masterstrokes or revolutionary ideas have to define a company’s improvement, not every change should send shockwaves throughout an industry, rather, small changes should be rewarded.
When we look at those who have - as defined by ITIF in a recent report on the demographic of innovation - made ‘meaningful, marketable contributions to technology-intensive industries as award-winning innovators and international patent applicants’, it is not the high-profile young startups that dominate the field. The majority (57%) of innovators come from larger companies - those with 500 or more employees - and the average age of an innovator working in the US is 47. Essentially, it is important to dispel the notion that innovation is only for the minnows, that it is somehow the reserve of the bedroom startup sitting on a world-changing idea. If movies like The Social Network have shown the power of innovation in building an empire, the figures released by ITIF show that if you’re not encouraging ideas within your company, you should be.
The question is not why some innovate and others do not - though this should be a concern if you are neglecting the process. Rather, it is why some innovate more quickly than others. Technology and resources play a large role. Mega-labs like Google X, founded in 2010 and overseen by co-founder of Google, Sergey Brin, is responsible for the majority of Google’s innovation, from products to in-house change. Similar bodies exist within the likes of Harvard University - with the Harvard Innovation Lab - and in Ogilvy Group Advertising - at the London Digital Innovation Lab, which has helped transform the company and keep them relevant in the 21st century advertising landscape. And these bodies are extensions of a wider trend towards the incubation of innovative ideas. The concept of an ‘innovation space’ within companies has ballooned recently; the Telegraph credit the recession as a huge influencing factor, with companies being forced to consider radical change in order to survive.
But these dedicated research labs are luxuries afforded by industry leaders, not essentials. Resources do of course help, but while it’s great to be in a position to have ‘innovation teams’, ideas can be bred almost anywhere. Many are taking innovation away from a specialized team and opening it up company-wide. Indeed, a company does not actually need to be reshaped at all in order to become more innovative, rather a change in mindset can trigger suggestions and instil the much lauded, but difficult to attain, ‘innovation culture’ that so many boards are chasing.
As with so many areas of business, change begins at the top. In that sense, yes you certainly can design an innovative business, through effective, supportive leadership. A flat management structure is helpful, but again is not essential; empowering employees to act independently can reap the same reward. Accepting that not every idea will bear fruit is essential, as is being aware of the elements of leadership than can subtly discourage suggestions and inhibit the actualization of good ideas. Rewarding employees that push for change, organizing a temporal if not physical space in which ideas can be shared regularly, and avoiding the flat out rejection of difficult-to-work suggestions are all ways in which innovative thought can be encouraged. An innovative business, at its best, is one in which no employee feels excluded from the process of suggesting and enacting positive change. You can design an innovative business with or without lavish resources, but the change must come from, and be supported by, the top.