By Lynda Bourne
Everyone is talking about innovation! But to innovate requires two things. The first is an innovative idea, and the second is a process to turn that idea into something valuable. In this post, I will look at what’s needed to create innovative ideas; my next post will look at one of the ways to transform the idea into something useful, even valuable, through design thinking.
The challenge of developing an innovative idea is part personal and part cultural.
The Personal Part of Innovation
Every innovation starts with an idea. So if you want ideas that may turn into useful innovations, you need to allow people time to develop the idea. This may occur in a number of ways:
- The idea may arise as a result of an unexpected outcome from something you are doing. Many of the major innovations, from penicillin to Post-it notes, started with something going wrong. What sparked the innovation was people taking the time to consider the situation and look for opportunities.
- The idea may come from a structured process deliberately set up to generate innovative ideas, such as a brainstorming session or hackathon. What sparks innovation is in part group dynamics and in part the challenge posed to the group. Careful planning and skillful facilitation are needed to get the best out of the group.
- The idea may come from quiet reflection over time. A powerful way to solve problems or exploit a possible opportunity is to have the question or challenge written on something you interact with from time to time, such as a white board or a note pad on your desk. Take the time to look at the question and then allow your subconscious to work on it. The problem with this approach is the ideas usually pop up into your conscious mind at highly inconvenient moments. Thought processing benefits from quiet time, ideally doing something that requires little or no conscious thought, such as walking. One of the problems in the modern, 24x7 world is most people are too busy being busy to have time to think reflectively.
The Cultural Part of Innovation
If an organization wants its people to be innovative, it needs to create a culture that allows innovative thinking. There are many ways this can be encouraged, so getting the mix right is key. Some of the options include:
- Provide quiet spaces and quiet time to allow reflective thinking. If everyone is working hard, over extended hours, there’s no time for creative thinking. And when they stop working, they are too tired to think.
- Encourage innovative conversations. There are many opportunities that can be used, including various review meetings, quality circles and other, less formal interactions. The key is to encourage discussion around how things could be improved. Everyone looks at what went wrong, but innovative organizations also play to their strengths: “We did that well, but could we do it better?”
- Try occasionally doing something more dynamic, focused on a known opportunity or problem. Done properly, events such as hackathons not only generate ideas in the moment, they also empower ongoing conversations and reflective thinking.
- Allow people to be wrong. Every idea is a good idea; some may be useful.
- Have systems to collect the ideas and allow the people who originated them to be involved in moving the useful ideas forward if they choose.
Recognition and rewards can help, but they are far less useful than most managers think. The driver for innovative thought tends to be introspective, and when a person has a good idea, self-fulfilling. The real challenge is having an open culture that allows new ideas to come to the fore and be considered on their merits. Systems can help—the old “ideas box” needs to be brought into the 21st century if you want an innovative culture.
Last, having identified an innovative idea, the organization needs to do something with them! More on this next time.
Please share your experiences: How have you sparked innovation within your organization?