You Can’t Force Innovation

With the downturn in the market, more and more companies are jumping on the innovation “band wagon” as their quick fix strategy to survive.  For most of these companies, it’s too little, too late.  There is no magic pill that will turn your unimaginative company into an innovative genius overnight.  Innovation is about openness, creativity, and controlled chaos.  For those process-driven companies that are trying to figure out how to become creative, understand this important fact – you can’t force innovation.

Large companies know how to implement processes.  This is what they do well.  Sales, marketing, manufacturing – are all run with well-defined, well-controlled processes.  This is what makes large companies competitive, allows them to control margins and scale.  However, this focus on process is precisely what makes them poor at innovation.  This is where they fail.  Why?

Innovation is not a process.  It is not a program.  It is not a standard, nor a certification.  Innovation and generating great ideas does not fit into typical repeatable, scalable processes established by large corporations.  Innovation thrives in chaotic, open, and non-structured environments.  It flows freely in collaborative, creative settings and favors multidisciplinary teams and relaxed cultures.  Its not about office cubicles, suits, titles and corporate structure – it’s about white boards, open space, casual dress and flat organizational structures.  So how can large companies begin to develop an innovative culture?

First, they must recognize that it’s not going to happen overnight.  Transforming a process-driven company into a innovation powerhouse takes time, commitment, resources and strong, forward-thinking leadership.  Innovation can’t be forced – but it can be fostered.  Here are five strategies for large corporations to consider when trying to foster innovation:

1. Hire Innovative People

This may seem like a simple suggestion, but it isn’t for many large companies.  They often hire process-driving individuals, then “hope” that they will suddenly become creative…somehow.  If you want to build an innovative company, you have to hire creative, innovative people.  They do exist – many of whom are young and haven’t been brainwashed by the corporate “process” model.  Some of the most innovative people I know are new grads.  Companies need to seek out these problem-solvers and start hiring them.

2. Identify and Group Your Innovative Employees

I enjoyed this article by Dave Logan that discusses a strategy for developing an internal “skunk works” R&D team within a larger organization and then removing this group entirely from the rest of the larger “mother ship” and all its rules and constraints.  Companies shouldn’t have the goal of making every employee innovative.  Some people are naturally more creative and innovative than others.  Plain and simple.  This isn’t an insult, it’s just the truth.  Just as many innovators are not great planners or process-driven individuals.  Form your “skunk works” from a group of naturally innovative employees who enjoy working together.

3. Allow Innovators To Innovate

Again, seems simple, but many large companies fail at this as well.  You have to let innovators do what they do best – innovate and solve problems.  I’ve got a great innovative colleague who recently left a large corporation because, even though he was hired for his innovative talent, he was given little opportunity to do so.  He was quickly forced into the regular manufacturing process and fire-fighting activities of the company.  It’s not good enough to simply hire innovative people, companies need to providing them time, resources (technical and sales/marketing), and a budget to experiment, create, prototype, test and build.  Had his previous employer done so, my friend would likely still be there creating amazing technologies.

4. Don’t Try to Make Innovation into a Process

I get a kick out of companies that figure by scheduling a brainstorming session once a quarter and getting everyone into a conference room,  creative product break-throughs and innovation will just happen.  For a process-driven company, they see only one way to make something happen – create a process for it!  I find articles like this amusing – “Should Innovation Be Planned?”.  It doesn’t work that way, for a whole lot of reasons.  Scheduling these sessions on a regular basis does not create innovation nor an innovative culture – it’s like sitting someone in front of a canvas over and over expecting them to suddenly become a great painter.  Brainstorming sessions have their place in innovative companies (specifically for solving targeted design issues) – but simply having wide-open, free-for-all brainstorming sessions will not suddenly turn your process-driven employees into an innovation engine.  It will most likely result in a quiet room, very few creative ideas, and a bunch of employees who are anxious to get back to their regular job.

5. Acknowledge and Reward Innovations

Too often, innovators’ ideas and creations are overlooked and unappreciated in large organizations.  In order to foster innovation, you must acknowledge and reward your creative, inventive employees for their great ideas.  Give them bonuses, acknowledge them internally, and let them know how much you appreciate them.  Their remuneration should also be linked directly to their innovative performance.  If they are creating technogolies that are making your organization a lot of money, make sure to reward them accordingly.

For those companies that are serious about changing their culture, and recognize the long-term value in having an innovative company, the time to start is now.   Hardship drives innovation and those companies that will survive will be those who have embraced an innovative culture.

If you enjoyed this article, please subscribe and follow me on Twitter (@tburke_quark) for more on tech startups, entrepreneurship, leadership and innovation – thanks!

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