In any industry, organizations that innovate constantly and relentlessly have a big competitive advantage over those that do not.  So how can you make innovation part of your company’s DNA, an integral element of its culture?

Generally speaking, entrepreneurs understand that a successful business depends on continuous innovation. Many have launched their business based on a successful innovation but overtime the company “losses it.”  What happened?  How can your company get back its innovation mojo?

The Symptoms

Ask yourself these questions,

  • Are you disappointed because your products are always a notch behind your competitors’?
  • Are people in your company more successful when they “play it safe” than when they take risks?
  • Worse yet, do they get punished when they try something new and it doesn’t work out perfectly?
  • Is anybody in your company working on “out there” side projects?  Do they have the freedom to do this?
  • Are you always encouraging people in your company to try the “latest and greatest” and nobody takes you up on it?

If you even thought of answering “yes” to any of these questions, your business may be in need of an overhaul if you are really serious about innovation.

There are many, probably hundreds, of books on the subject out there.  Some are cookbooks, some are inspirational and some are more theoretical than the rest. In our experience, there are only a few things you need to do to get started (which is the most important step of them all),

  • Embrace failure
  • Bring out the Group Genius
  • One small, bold step at a time

Embrace Failure

Failure is good.  Failure means that you tried and you learned.  Heck, reward failure. And, always, celebrate failure.

Of course, we are not talking about rewarding people for incompetence or sloppiness. We are talking about the kind of failure that comes from trying to do something bold that doesn’t work out in the end.

Even the most dire of failures usually has in it the seeds of progress.  The canonical example of this is Thomas Edison, trying out lots and lots of materials before finding the combination that worked best for his light bulb.  With every “failure,” Edison learned something its competition didn’t.

If you were Edison’s boss, would you have celebrated every one of his failure?  Would you have posted pictures of the charred remains of each experiment in the company wiki and given them funny names?  Or would you have fired Tom after the first try?

If not you, how about your company’s management? Are they comfortable with this kind of failure?  Or do they always deliver “on time and within budget?”

Bring Out the Group Genius

Innovation rarely comes from a lone soul, it usually involves a number of people and “the creative power of collaboration.” The most significant innovations for a business usually involve a number of people, even customers. Train and coach your employees (all of them, not just R&D) to avoid blocking innovation. Things like,

  • Saying no to “unfamiliar” ideas because they don’t “feel” right
  • Not starting in a new direction until “we have all the facts”
  • Your favorite questions is “why risk it?” instead of “why not?”
  • It is against your mission statement
  • It is “stupid” idea and “nobody will buy it”

The list continues, and you can probably think of a few more, but the point stands that these are typical conversations and behaviors that kill people’s initiative.

Since playfulness encourages creativity, there are even “games” that you can use to encourage collaboration among your employees and with your customers.

One Small, Bold Step at a Time

We’ve found that the Agile principles that have worked so well for software development, also work well when applied throughout a business. We call this Extended Agile: take a small step forward, try it out for a while, course-correct based on results, and repeat.

Instead of having a big product release, break it down into smaller ones. Release them to real users. Listen carefully to their feedback. Course correct. Do it again.

The same works for creating a culture of innovation. Instead of a big, innovation “initiative, make it a project to get everyone in your company closer to your customers. What kind of project would make customers tangible and real to your employees? how about having engineers call end-users directly and asking them how they like the product/service? or, how about having everybody in the company send a postcard (the paper kind, not an Evite) to a couple of end-users.

Then watch what happens: who takes it on and who poopoos the whole thing; why did they poopoo it? can they suggest a different exercise? If they have an alternate idea, try that out next (even if it sounds like a wild hare to you).

Whatever the result, celebrate it! Pin return postcards and postcards from customers on a wall or scan them and paste on Facebook (don’t worry, nobody will know what you’re talking about–it’ll be your inside joke).

There are many other low risk, low cost ways to get the ball rolling to give people a tangible sense of how it feels when the whole team tries out new things, new behaviors.

Parting Words

Here are some guidelines that have worked for us and for our clients,

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate
  • Start with a group and encourage them (and empower) them to present new ideas, point out gaps and creative solutions to them
  • Start with baby steps, don’t try to do it all in one big gulp
  • Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate every step along the way, the successes and the failures
  • Insists on results–every one of Edison’s experiments yielded a result, even if not a working light bulb
  • Define a budget and constraints–but not to the point of blocking all possible innovations

Creating a culture of innovation is not easy; sometimes it may feel like “it will never catch on.”  But companies that commit to it create remarkable products, services and operating improvements that clearly differentiates them from their competition.