For the longest time, it was the buzzword thrown around carelessly at business summits and seminars. We’ve heard it all before and probably even used it in a conversation or two, but do we really understand the meaning behind this often overused word?
The answer to this lies in putting the term into context. Innovation means different things to different people, so to truly comprehend what innovation entails, the correct question that should be asked is: What does innovation mean to you and your company?
Too often, the term innovation is associated with radical improvements that hold the singular solution to the issues faced by businesses. In reality, however, the innovation process is more subtle. It frequently requires a somewhat systematic approach that involves going through a series of stages before the final adoption of a new idea. Innovative companies such as Google and Facebook understand the significance of cultivating innovation and therefore seek to achieve this by establishing innovation-friendly environments within their workplaces.
Culture - the key to successful innovation
For many businesses, being adaptive to market changes during turbulent times is key to remaining relevant. Being adaptive, however, requires change, and with change comes an equal amount of resistance. The challenge for businesses here is to foster a culture of innovation, where change is then considered a norm. Fostering a culture of innovation should start from the very top, where reflecting values are entrenched into the core business. Here are some ways to achieve this:
1. Build a collaborative ecosystem
Innovation is a team effort. By building an ecosystem around collaboration and innovation, businesses are able to identify the best resources both inside and outside of the organization. This means that within the different functional units in the ecosystem, each stakeholder is able to obtain shared work and knowledge that allows for problem-solving of greater complexity.
Amazon rewards its employees for innovation. It’s billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, creates an innovation ecosystem by making innovation part of everyone’s job. Innovation is decentralized, and without a Chief Innovation Officer in the company, each employee is expected to contribute equally towards the ideation of new products or services. Most of Amazon’s employees are assigned diverse teams to work on innovation challenges, where these teams are properly educated on how to experiment their way towards innovation.
2. Encourage creative thinking
What’s the solution to this era of constant business disruption? Creativity.
Companies that are able to leverage creative problem solving are the ones that can turn the threat of disruptive change into an opportunity. Creative thinking involves challenging the status quo, asking questions that others are too afraid to ask, maximizing diversity and most importantly, thinking outside the box. The first step, however, is for each employee to truly understand the business by having deep insights on the competition and the changing behaviors of consumers. This will allow businesses to address problems of any magnitude through innovating for new ideas.
3. Allowing for unstructured time
Innovation often requires timely incubation. Companies that understand this will set aside a portion of work hours for creative experimentation. Some of the greatest innovations were born from such practices.
The 3M post-it notepad was the result of an idea that came during a '15% time', where employees are allowed to use paid working hours to work on projects of their choice. Google’s '20% time' is also behind some of the company’s most successful projects that are still in play today, such as Gmail and AdSense. As a result, an increasing number of companies have recognized the importance of creating unstructured time for its employees to promote innovation. LinkedIn launched the [in]cubator program in 2012, Apple created a similar program called ‘Blue Sky’ in the same year and Microsoft created ‘The Garage’, an outlet for experimental projects for its engineers.
Successfully fostering a culture of innovation can result in better performance of employees, increased productivity, and higher customer satisfaction. In China, innovation has been key to economic success. In fact, it has been projected that innovation in the country could contribute as much as $3 trillion to $5 trillion a year to GDP by 2025. Home-grown companies such as Xiaomi and Baidu, have been praised for their successful innovative efforts.
International companies, such as Philips, have also managed to penetrate the Chinese market albeit going through a series of stages. The company went through the journey of innovating 'in China' (because of cost), to innovating 'for China' (addressing the local market), to finally innovating 'from China' (to serve the world). Philips’ Senior Director, Research China & Program Manager Air Business, Freek Suijver, will be one of the speakers at the Chief Innovation Officer Summit this September. He will further share his experience on how culture has helped Philips Research innovate successfully.
Innovation should not be a cycle - one where there is an influx of ideas and activities concentrated during a given time followed by a period of lapse, only to be revived again months later. Instead, innovation should be approached as part of the company culture - one where it is ingrained so deep within the business and processes that every employee embodies innovation as a way of life.