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A Path to Innovation

Author: Matt McKendry

There is nothing easy about creating an innovative business and it gets harder as an organisation gets larger and mired in the processes and policies that guide how it operates.

For the past 10 years I have been associated with initiatives such as NZTE”s Better by Design programme and the Deloitte Fast 50 to understand what makes our innovator tick. I was also fortunate enough to participate in a week-long tour to Silicon Valley which provided insights into how leading global companies such as Apple, Google and Facebook operate their innovative businesses.

These experiences haven’t led to me to coming up with an innovation “silver bullet”. Sorry, there isn’t one. But rather it has shown that innovative organisations share common characteristics, instead of following a set of rules, which propels their growth and provides the fuel for ongoing innovation.

Rituals not rules inspire innovation

People are seldom motivated or inspired by rules and regulations, and being innovative often requires breaking or changing them. Too many companies miss the subtlety of what motivates people when they develop their organisational plans and visions, and are then surprised that they can’t develop creative and innovative cultures. They bind employees in rules, regulations and profit making statements rather than inspiring them with a positive views of the future.

Too many mission statements that proudly adorn business walls have nothing to do with empowering or motivating their people to make a difference. Financially motivated statements might appeal to shareholders, but they do nothing to inspire the people that matter most: your employees, who are the source of your innovation.

Contrast this with the likes of Apple which seeks to “enrich lives” through its products. Apple’s technology has changed how consumers access digital content and services, driven from a standpoint of designing beneficial experiences for both its employees and consumers. Good examples are the tone with which customers in an Apple retail store are treated: they receive “personal training” rather than technical support, and in the way Apple motivates its employees to seek out new uses for its technology so it becomes an everyday part of our lifestyle.

Similarly, the environmental cleaning products company Method inspires its people by chasing the social mission of “creating a cleaner world”. Through this vision it has created an enormous following, among its employees and customers who believe strongly in the cause which leads them in to becoming advocates for the brand and its products. This passions has enables Method to compete with multinationals with advertising budgets 100 times larger.

So how does this relate to innovation? Cause driven organisations, based on meaningful values, create more aspirational work cultures that influence people behaviour. A more meaningful cause will push emotional buttons, driving people to go the extra mile because they give a dam. If you want to motivate people to go the extra mile and drive innovation within your organisation, consider the tone of your mission and ask yourself whether it is enough to inspire great things beyond the usual call of duty.

Play is serious business

Klutz is a San Francisco company that sells children’s activities books globally. It started out with a book that taught kids how to juggle. The instructions went something like this: “First, start by holding three balls, then throw them up into the air at the same time and catch them.” Anyone who attempts this will probably learn an important lesson in creativity: failure will happen, and don’t take it too seriously.

Unfortunately most businesses have no tolerance for failure and no understanding that it’s a vital ingredient in fostering an innovative culture. Klutz has a unique approach of managing it through laughter, which it says is critical for its creativity. But for more conventional organisations, the concept of rapid prototyping– is becoming a common and effective tool in managing innovation and building a culture of trying new things. It also helps overcome the fear of failure.

Prototyping requires people to “build to think” and allows ideas to be tested in very “low spec” form and encourages working together to evolve concepts. It is recognised as a method of building more collaborative and creative environments where people are more likely to test ideas. To help build the right environment, workspaces need to become more open and visual to encourage collaboration and provide opportunities for people to contribute to the shaping of ideas as they form.

In many organisations there is a tendency for people to work individually on their computers, rather working collaboratively within teams. This restricts innovation because people are less likely to bounce ideas off each other and evolve them in the process. Innovative companies are changing the physical work environments to break down these barriers and promoting the use of visual walls and white boards to encourage the sharing of ideas. This encourages more ideas sharing across the business and puts more structure and purpose into the office’s water cooler conversations.

These initiatives are not all about the fun and laughter that often go along with them. There are a number of principles and methodologies that can get the most out of it to make it meaningful and serious for business, and they can transform a business by empowering people to seek out new and better ways of doing things.

Regardless of whether your business is a products or services organisation, the concept of dedicating time (like Google which sets aside 20% of its employees’ hours for developing new ideas) and creating spaces to encourage experimentation will have a positive impact on your business. One of the secrets is getting ideas out early; the first few ideas might not be successful, but the fact that the organisation is providing permission and resources for testing ideas is critical to changing or inspiring an innovative culture.

There are no hard and fast methods that work for all companies wanting to create, or re-create an innovative culture, but there are few connected themes that can contribute to planting the innovation seed. Taking one of these steps can be scary, but it also can lead to an exciting (and hopefully fruitful) journey.


This article that was originally published in the Sunday Star Times on 5 February 2012.

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