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Simple Approaches to Promote Innovation

innovation, talent, kenya...

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The new year is the perfect time for new ideas and new innovations. And while we would probably all say we support innovation in our organisations, few companies know how to do this well.

Part of the challenge is that we tend to focus too much on highly disruptive innovations. We think innovation means we must create a new product category, revolutionize an industry, or transform how society works.

It’s fine to aim for large-scale changes—just keep in mind that these are rarely successfully implemented. Far more realistic and beneficial for your organisation is to focus on continuous innovation.

Continuous innovation provides small, ongoing improvements in your company and your product or service. Over time, these changes can lead to significant transformation. Continuous innovation can also help build a culture of inventive thinking in your team.

Making modest modifications on an ongoing basis still requires strong leadership. Trying new things is inherently risky, and employees need leaders who can help them manage that risk.

According to the Centre for Creative Leadership, these are the three most essential management principles for supporting an innovative team:

  1. Empowerment. Leaders need to show their employees that they trust their skills and ideas enough to truly empower them to experiment.
  2. Purpose. Managers can help their people stay focused on the vision and purpose of what they’re doing, motivating them even when they face challenges or failures.
  3. Partnership. When trying new things, employees need to know that their leaders are in it with them. They are willing to roll up their sleeves, take chances, and take their share of responsibility when things don’t go well.

Continuous innovation also flourishes when an organisation actively and intentionally creates space for it. Kristof Kloeckner, the former CTO of IBM Global Technology Services, suggests initiatives like company-wide hackathons in which teams are asked to submit proposals to address a specific challenge or strategic area. Innovation boards, which accept new ideas from anyone in the company, as well as an employee reward system for successfully implemented improvements, can also encourage broad participation in continuous innovation.

There are also some simple exercises that team members can practice to grow their creativity. In his book How to Have Great Ideas: A Guide to Creative Thinking, professor and photographer John Ingledew shares 53 strategies that can help inspire your next big idea. Here are a few of them:

  1. Take items that would normally be considered trash and ask, “What else can I do with this?” Try to turn these things into something of value.
  2. Distill a challenge you have down to its most basic essence. Can you articulate your challenge in 10 words, 5 words, or even 3?
  3. See an everyday object in an entirely fresh way by placing it in an unexpected environment so it has a novel purpose.
  4. Improvise a solution to a challenge with the objects that are closest to you—such as in your bag, on your desk, or in your car.

For most of our clients, recruiting a leader that is innovative and can work in a fast-changing environment is critical. More than that though, is the ability to create a culture of innovation within the team. There can be many obstacles or hidden barriers to achieving this, but some of the most common ones we see include:

  • Innovation is not articulated as a company-wide commitment
  • Management incentives are not structured to reward innovation; lack of reward and recognition program
  • Lack of a systematic innovation process for team members to follow
  • No creative thinking training
  • Rewarding crisis management rather than crisis prevention
  • Fear of criticizing current practices and/or breaking cultural norms by challenging senior leadership

If you want to promote more innovation in your organisation, there are many ways, big and small, to do this. Consider starting with a few simple exercises or small projects to get your team used to more innovative thinking. Remember, to see results, you need to provide the tools, create the space and reward innovation in your teams. Once you’ve established a strong culture of innovation in your company however, the possibilities for transformation are extensive and exciting!