How to Encourage Innovation Throughout Your Organization

Visionary Leadership,

Something unexpected happened in the early part of the global pandemic: organizational innovation took off and flourished, write authors Linus Dahlander and Martin Wallin in a Harvard Business Review 2020 article

“Companies began to come together to work openly at an unprecedented level, putting the ability to create value before the opportunity to make a buck,” writes Dahlander and Wallin, who are both faculty members at the European School of Management Technology in Berlin, Germany. 

One example of this is the collaboration between Ford Motor Company, GE Healthcare, and the UAW to build ventilators using F-150 truck seat fans, 3D printed parts, and transferable battery packs. 

As that demonstrates, “Collaboration can obviously save human lives, but it can also produce huge benefits for companies — even though it’s often overlooked in normal circumstances,” Dahlander and Wallin write. 

Collaboration, Innovation, and agility work in harmony, according to a 2020 Forrester Consulting study that surveyed 155 global decision makers about the place high-bandwidth collaboration has in aligning innovation throughout organizations. Seventy-four percent of respondents say that their organizations need to be more agile to stay ahead amid the fast-changing marketplace and to steadily innovate at every organizational level.

Here are six ways to encourage innovation throughout your organization along with methods to help meet innovation challenges in today’s rapidly evolving market and steps to create an innovation plan to follow. 

1. Align Long-Term Strategy and Innovation

Managing innovation challenges and the innovative process can be difficult, according to Langdon Morris, author of the 2020 book, The Innovation Master Plan: How to Align Innovation With Strategy - the CEO’s Guide.  Morris is a senior partner and co-founder of InnovationLabs LLC. 

The payoff for doing it well can include gaining a sharper competitive edge, enhancement of your brand, and increased revenue and profitability, Morris says. It can also set the stage for a sweeping culture of innovation within an organization.

Morris relates that many executives will admit that their companies tend to run short on potential breakthroughs and heavy on incremental ideas. “They’re hoping, sometimes desperately, that change doesn’t catch up with them, that it doesn’t expose their innovation deficits,” he says.

Companies That Endure Are Innovative

A major challenge in conducting innovation today, Morris writes, is the increasing complexity of unexpected changes in the marketplace. “Companies that endure are flexible, adaptable, foresighted, courageous, and innovative,” he says. “They produce more than just short term, incremental, market-share-preserving innovations; they also develop and introduce long term, bigger-bet breakthroughs.”

Innovation, Morris cautions, can be “risky, expensive, and unpredictable.” Successful innovation, he says, requires developing and implementing a systematic process — a master plan — for achieving it.

2. Develop a Process for Implementing Innovation Strategies

Innovation is a complicated pursuit that involves a lot of planning and deliberation. Working from an innovation strategy perspective can better equip organizations to get it right.

Effective strategies require articulated strategies that align the innovation process with an organization’s business strategies, according to Gary P. Pisano, the Harry E. Figgie, Jr. Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School. He writes that creating a strong innovation strategy begins with having an intelligible understanding and coherent objectives that can help the organization achieve a lasting competitive edge.

Pisano writes that there are four critical tasks involved in developing and implementing a successful innovation strategy. There is no strategy that works for every organization. Leaders should consider the following factors to help meet common challenges associated with creating an innovation strategy:

  1. Determine what your expectations are about how innovating is expected to create value for customers and your organization. Share the answers to this question throughout your organization.
  2. Develop a high-level plan to use in allocating resources to your various types of innovation. How you delegate your finances, time, and effort is the basis of your strategy.
  3. Oversee trade-offs. It is critical for senior leaders to make the important decisions that will ultimately be in the organization’s best interest. That is because every department in an organization will tend to have its own self-interests.
  4. Recognize that innovation strategies will evolve. Strategies are only hypotheses that will be subject to evolving changes in the market, technologies, regulations, and the competition. Each innovation strategy will provide evolving lessons in experimentation, adaptation, and learning.

3. Add Open Innovation to Your Innovation Plan

Companies looked for ways to cope with the business repercussions brought on by COVID-19. Several looked to the collaborative power of open innovation, authors Dahlander and Wallin relay in the Harvard Business Review 2020 article mentioned earlier.

In doing so, many companies forewent their usual concerns about intellectual property and forged ahead in collaborating with other companies to do good for the greater cause, they say.

Oxford Review defines open innovation as the organizational use of external sources in addition to internal sources to drive innovation such as products, business models, services, and processes. Internal sources include using R&D and an organization’s staff to innovate, whereas open innovation involves using many external sources that possibly include customer feedback, outside agencies, and competitors to inform innovation.

The collaborative approach these companies took can produce rewarding results in bad times and good. Most significant about open innovation that occurs during times of crisis is the opportunity it can create for future collaborative innovation between companies, the authors note. While intellectual property concerns are real and valid, the potential risk is that organizations might block initiatives from gaining momentum.

“Having established new ways of doing open innovation during a crisis can bring much-needed flexibility and, in the end, secure the company’s viability,” Dahlander and Wallin advise. “Don’t waste those experiences by planning how to get back to the old normal. Plan for a new normal.”

4. Lay the Foundation for Sustainable Innovation in a Post-Pandemic Future

Businesses were forced to become unusually creative at the onslaught of the global pandemic. Changing work environments and customer demands necessitated new, adaptive customer experience strategies, including process and product changes, according to a 2021 Gallup article on innovation. A number of Gallup’s Chief Human Resources Officers (CHRO) Roundtable members said these factors helped bring new innovations to their respective organizations.

Leaders whose organizations were forced to undergo such changes during the pandemic are now searching for ways to extend that newfound creativity and knowledge, write the Gallup article authors, Marco Nink and Jennifer Robison. In short, leaders hope to accomplish that by developing measures that promote innovation-friendly environments. That requires laying a foundation to sustain it.

“During the pandemic, many leaders spoke more often and openly with staff than they ever had before,” Nink and Robison write. The transparency they showed induced a better experience for employees during the pandemic, one that should continue, they advise.

Employees Are Eager to Cultivate Their Creativity

Since the start of the pandemic, employees are eager to have workplace experiences that cultivate their creativity. That can provide the holistic groundwork that enables their abilities to be more innovative. 

Managers are the main ingredient for creating and sustaining an innovative culture in their organizations. Now, they say, is the right time for leaders to capitalize on the creativity and innovation that got underway shortly after the start of the pandemic. That requires more of a focus on coaching employees than on managing them and a focus on people over processes, they write, adding that it’s coaches that are necessary for innovation. Coaches also work to maintain regular, high-caliber conversations with employees that are conducive to ideation and constructive feedback.

5. Practice Organizational DEI to Help Drive Innovation

While diversity, equity, and inclusion can help promote a diverse workforce, DEI can also drive innovation, according to the 2022 Inspirus Trends and Forecast report. Diversity should be visible at every level of a company, including C-Suites. Promoting inclusion, the report states, powers good employee experience that helps drive collaboration and ultimately, a mindset that breeds innovation.

Diverse Environments Are Ripe for Innovation

“Diverse environments are also ripe for innovation, as companies actively and proactively seek input from employees at all levels, of all tenure, and from all types of diverse backgrounds,” the report relates.

Embracing organizational DEI to further innovation can provide rewards, the report states. To do this:

  • Acknowledge creativity and innovation in problem-solving and processes. “Rewards and recognition aren’t only for salespeople — all employees need recognition for their efforts.”
  • Recognize employee creativity, innovation, and meaningful contributions. This rewards an employee who makes added efforts while sending a “strong signal to the rest of the workforce about what is valued.”
  • Listen to employees and acknowledge their perspectives. These actions relay understanding and promote engagement. “When we actively listen, we show employees that we value their perspectives and experiences which creates a foundation for action, spurs creativity, and guides innovation.”

6. Drive Innovation Through Technology

Technology that automates predictable administrative tasks can help free up employees’ time and minds, allowing them more time to focus on innovating new ideas and brainstorming, according to the Inspirus report.

Seeking out technology that offers integrated employee surveys and support collaboration can also help support innovation efforts. The report states that “[w]hen employees feel supported in these ways, they’re more likely to be more productive, more engaged, and bring more creative ideas to their role. By leveraging AI and process automation tools, your organization will create an environment where employees can reach their highest potential.”

Takeaway

The methods mentioned here for sparking innovation and creativity throughout an organization are some of many that can help you plan for the post-pandemic business future. You can begin by:

  • Aligning strategy with innovation
  • Developing innovation strategies
  • Adding open innovation to an innovation plan
  • Laying the foundation for sustainable innovation in a post-pandemic future
  • Practicing organizational DEI to help drive innovation
  • Driving innovation through technology

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