If You Want to Create Space for Innovation at Your Company, This is What You Need to Do
“There’s a way to do it better. Find it” – Thomas Edison
This quote by famous inventor Thomas Edison sums up the mindset that any businesses that wants to remain relevant in the 21st century should adopt.
Think about companies like Kodak, Nokia, Xerox, Blockbuster, Yahoo, Myspace, and so on.
All these companies have two things in common. The first one is that they were all at one point the leaders in their respective industries.
The second one is that all of them went bust because they failed to find a better way of doing what they were already good at.
Today, owing to the technological revolution, it has become even easier for small startup companies with just a handful of employees to implement disruptive ideas, shake up the status quo and take on industry giants.
In just a few years, taxi hailing app Uber disrupted the traditional taxi industry in the whole world, despite not owning a single taxi.
Airbnb has greatly disrupted the accommodation industry.
Services like Netflix and YouTube, which have been in existence for less than two decades, have disrupted the television industry, which has been existence for almost a decade.
What this shows is that the world is rapidly changing, and any business that wants to remain successful cannot afford to rest on its laurels.
Innovation is no longer an added advantage, it is a necessity. Failing to innovate is akin to signing your company’s death warrant.
Question is, how do you create the space for innovation within your company? This is what we are going to look at today.
Before we get to that, however, it is important to understand what exactly innovation is and why it is crucial for your company.
WHAT IS INNOVATION?
A number of definitions have been put forward to explain what innovation is, both in general business terms and in respect to technology.
The definition I like most, however, is one put forward by MIT professor and MD of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, Bill Aulet.
In a video posted on YouTube, Bill describes innovation as the commercialization of an invention.
His definition is almost similar to the definition put across by the Business Dictionary, which defines innovation as the process of turning an invention or idea into a valuable product or service that customers are willing to pay for.
Very often, people interchange the terms innovation and invention. They think that innovation is simply coming up with ideas for new products or new ways of doing things.
That is invention. Innovation is only achieved once the new idea is successfully exploited for commercial gain. In order for a business to be termed as innovative, it has to do one of the following:
- Replace or improve an existing business process to make the business more efficient or productive, or to allow the business to improve the quality of its existing products and services.
- Come up with new products and services to meet the evolving needs and demands of its customers.
- Make changes to existing products and services to increase their perceived value or differentiate them from those of competitors.
Innovation can happen as one major change, or it can be effected through a series of small, gradual changes.
WHY INNOVATION IS IMPORTANT FOR YOUR BUSINESS
With the word innovation being casually thrown out everywhere, you would think companies put a lot of effort into spurring innovation.
On the contrary, a lot of businesses are so engrossed with their day to day operations and their successful products that they don’t give much thought to innovation.
For instance, you might be surprised to learn that the first digital camera was invented by an engineer working for Kodak.
At the time, however, Kodak had a very successful film business, and instead of trying to figure out how they could commercialize this new invention, they were afraid it would hurt their film business, and they therefore decided to sit on it. We all know what happened after.
If you don’t want your business to end up like Kodak, you need to put in place measures to spur innovation within your company.
Below are some reasons why innovation is important for your business.
- Increased competitiveness: Innovation helps you improve productivity and efficiency while at the same time improving the quality of your products and services. This makes you more competitive because you can produce better products at lower costs than your competitors.
- Attracting new customers: Innovation also leads to improved products and services that meet consumer needs and demands in ways no other product or service can. This makes your products and services more appealing to a wider range of customers. In addition, introducing new products and services can help you go after a new market segment.
- Proactive approach to business: Customer needs and preferences are constantly evolving, yet a lot of businesses remain stuck with the same approach to business for years, sometimes even decades. Embracing a culture of innovation allows you to adopt a proactive approach to business, one that keeps evolving to match the evolving customer needs and preferences.
- Improved staff retention: Embracing a culture of innovation means allows your staff to unleash their creativity and work on challenging projects. This can improve employee satisfaction and reduce turnover.
On the other hand, businesses that do not embrace a culture of innovation run the risk of having reduced productivity and efficiency, losing market share to innovative competitors, experiencing a reduction in margins and profit, losing their key talents to competitors, or in the case of companies like Blockbuster and Kodak, going bust.
CREATING SPACE FOR INNOVATION
As we have seen above, innovation is a must for any company that does not want to get left out, especially in today’s environment where small but faster startups can knock down huge, established companies.
But how do companies, especially the larger ones that are not as agile as startups, promote innovation?
In most cases, the solution has been to create internal innovation hubs.
These internal innovation hubs act like startups, with the ability to move quickly and experiment with different ideas, while still remaining within the safety net of the mother company.
The need for such innovation spaces is justified.
The fact remains that innovators working within established companies are often held back by the bureaucratic red tape and cultural challenges of the organization, and in order for them to actually be able to innovate, they need a safe space away from all these constraints.
In most cases, these innovation spaces look cool and are great places to work. They are equipped with bean bags, shared workstations, pool tables, collaboration tables, and so on. They try as much as possible to mimic the startup culture when it comes to space.
While this can help foster innovation, it is not enough. If you want to create space for your employees to be creative, you must think beyond physical space.
Having a physical space for innovation counts for little if your employees are still bound by other organizational constraints.
If you want to reap the benefits of innovation, below are eight other things you need to provide in order to provide space for innovation.
Innovation requires more than a physical space. It also requires a shift in mindset and a shift in strategy.
If innovation is not part of the corporate strategy, all efforts to inculcate a spirit of innovation within the company will not bear fruit.
The leaders of the organization need to think about the future of the organization and the role that innovation will play in that future.
Once they know the role of innovation to the future of the organization, they can then decide on what the organization will focus on when it comes to innovation, as well as what it will not focus on.
Having a corporate strategy that defines the role of innovation makes it easier for innovators within the companies to put their focus in projects they know will help move the company towards its strategic goals.
In addition, creating the strategic space for innovation means doing away with the traditional way of doing things.
In a traditional office setting, business leaders provide a roadmap that everyone is supposed to follow.
This makes sense because it is important for everyone to get to the same destination together. When it comes to innovation however, this approach does not work.
While the destination still matters, innovators should be given the freedom to find their own routes and figure out what they need to get to the destination.
In other words, business leaders should loosen their grip on the innovation team.
It is not enough to create a physical space for innovation, give them the freedom to tinker and break things and then seat back and wait for amazing innovations to start rolling through the door.
Sure, some awesome ideas might be spawned by your innovation hub, but then many of them might not have any practical or commercial application, in which case innovation will not have been achieved.
To prevent this, it is important to define the portfolio space within which the innovation team is supposed to operate.
There are several different approaches when it comes to this. The first one core innovation. This is where the innovation team works on innovations that are meant to make incremental improvements to the company’s core products and services.
This is the easiest approach to innovation and allows the company to serve existing markets and customers better.
The second approach is adjacent innovation.
This is where a company leverages its existing products and services to come up with new products and services that are related to its core offerings.
For instance, Amazon started as an online book store.
A few years after its launch, it started expanding its offering beyond books.
This is an example of adjacent innovation. Amazon realized it was good at e-commerce, and it leveraged this to move into an adjacent market – those who wanted to buy things online, but were not necessarily looking for books.
Similarly, Apple launching the iPad is an example of adjacent innovation. They created a new product for iPhone users who wanted a larger screen and better performance.
The third approach is transformational innovation, which is also referred to as game changing, disruptive, or breakthrough innovation.
This is where a company comes up with completely new products, or even new businesses.
In so doing, the company enters new markets, or even ends up creating new markets that did not exist previously.
When this kind of innovation is successful, it usually makes headlines because it is usually so disruptive.
Examples of transformational innovation include Apple coming up with iTunes, or a company like Google venturing into production of autonomous vehicles.
Therefore, it is important for leaders to define the innovation portfolio balance that they want its innovation team to work within (core vs. adjacent vs. transformational). It also becomes easier to track the progress of innovation efforts.
As a famous quote by Apple founder Steve Jobs goes, innovation is not all about money, but rather about the people you have and how you lead them.
According to Jobs, when Apple revolutionized the computer industry with the introduction of the Mac, IBM’s research and development budget was at least 100 times more than Apple’s.
While the claims by Steve Jobs are true, this does not mean that money is not an important part of innovation.
If you want your company to be innovative, you have to provide the innovation team with the financial space to innovate.
In the most basic sense, this means ensuring that your company sets aside a budget for innovation activities.
It doesn’t stop there, however. Leaders who want their companies to be innovative must also be willing to protect their innovation teams from budget cuts affecting the core business.
Very often, the innovation hub is usually the first one to undergo budget cuts in most companies.
Unfortunately, if funding is at risk of being cut at any time, it becomes more difficult to have sustained success from your innovation projects.
If you want your innovation projects to be successful, you have to give your innovation team financial space by ensuring your innovation projects are protected from unnecessary budget cuts.
Innovation requires a different way of working compared to normal processes. Usually, innovators within the company will rely on lean startup methods to come up with new products and services.
These methods require lots of experimentation and iterative development.
It is impossible to manage this model of working with the same tools and processes that are ordinarily used to manage the company’s core products and services.
This means that companies need to come up with a different set of tools that will be used to manage new product development, especially during the early stages.
Such innovation tools ensure that business leaders are asking the right questions at the right moment, which in turn makes it easier for them to determine the best approach to developing and implementing the new products and services.
Very often, a lot of companies want to be innovative, and they do encourage their employees to come up with and work on new ideas.
However, the same companies do not give the employees any time space for being innovative.
They expect the employees to work on the new ideas during the small slivers of free time they have during their normal workday. It is impossible to have sustained innovation this way.
Actually, one of the biggest sources of frustrations for a lot intrapreneurs is that they feel they have virtually no time to work on their new ideas.
Some companies even make huge investments in developing cool innovation labs and spaces, but then these spaces remain unused because employees are busy working on their day to day tasks.
If business leaders want sustained innovation within their companies, they must be willing to create some time for intrapreneurs to set aside their day to day tasks and focus on coming up with ideas for new products and services.
A good example of a company that has done this exceptionally is Google, one of the most innovative companies on the planet.
Apparently, employees working for Google are allowed to spend up to 20% of their time (about one day per week) working on projects that may be of interest to the company, even if they fall outside the employee’s traditional job description.
And if you are tempted to think that this is a waste of precious working time, you might be surprised to know that some of Google’s popular products, such as Gmail, Google Maps, AdSense, Google Talk, and Google News all started as side projects.
Learning new skills is a natural part of innovation. If someone within your company comes up with a better process that will improve the customer experience, the other employees have to learn this process.
If someone comes up with a new product, other employees will have to learn how to make this product or provide this service. Problem is, most people don’t like learning.
After spending a long time learning how to be efficient and how to get whatever it is they do right with the first attempt, people are not so enthusiastic about having to start the learning process all over again.
At the same time, there’s no point in innovating new ways of doing things if the rest of the company is not going to adopt them.
Therefore, for any innovation efforts to be successful, intrapreneurs should also be given space to train their colleagues on new ways of doing things.
This will make it easier for the new innovations to be implemented across the whole organization.
Space to Fail
Innovation is all about trying new things and experimenting.
Well, here’s the thing about experiments – you can never be certain about the outcome. If you are certain about the outcome of your experiment, then that is not an experiment.
What this means is that during the innovation process, things will not always go as you expected. A lot of the new product ideas will fail.
A lot of the new processes you try will not work. When this happens, what most companies do is to pull the plug on the innovation project and write it off as a failed project.
The most innovative companies, however, understand that this is the path to innovation.
Rather than pulling the plug, they celebrate and embrace these failures, and encourage their employees to use the lessons from these failures to develop better products and processes.
They understand that the more ideas they try, they more likely they are to find one that works.
Some of the most innovative companies understand this, which is why they reward their employees for failing. Similarly, if you want your company to become innovative, you should give your intrapreneurs space to fail.
Space to Scale
Remember, innovation is not just coming up with a new idea or invention. Innovation also involves turning the idea or invention into a product or service customers are willing to pay for, or applying it in a way that helps improve the company’s bottom line.
The problem with a lot of companies is that they spend money, time and resources on innovation projects, but are then unwilling to take whatever products or processes that come out of the project to scale.
Remember the story about the first digital camera? It was developed by one of Kodak’s engineers, but Kodak was unwilling to take it to scale because it was afraid that the digital camera would cannibalize its core film business.
Eventually, sitting on this new invention is what ended up cannibalizing the company.
Any company that wants its innovation efforts to be successful must be willing to invest in and take to scale whatever promising products and ideas come from its innovation program, else all the innovation efforts will be a waste.
Innovation is very important, and any company that wants to survive in today’s world where hypercompetition is the order of the day needs to create space for innovation.
It is good to note, however, that creating space for innovation goes beyond creating a physical space for employees to be innovative.
To have sustained and successful innovation, companies should also invest in the eight spaces discussed in this article. Without these eight spaces, the physical space will be useless.
Actually, a company that puts in place these eight spaces will still be innovative even without having to create a physical innovation lab.
However, it is good to note that these eight spaces can only be created by the organization’s leadership, which means that innovation ultimately lies with business leaders.
Only leaders that make the right decisions will end up with an innovative company.
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