Six keys to business innovation

Every business is unique, but those that are highly successful and excel at bringing products or services to market are, time and again, described as being highly innovative.  Successful organisations, however, do not usually become innovative by accident.  Instead, leaders in the company take deliberate steps that will help to create and nurture a corporate culture in which creative thinkers can thrive.

Personal relationships

Offices may be divided into distinct cubbies, but human beings cannot fully compartmentalise their lives, even though the culture in many business environments tends to encourage just that.  An employee who shows up to do his or her job and has no true personal connections with co-workers will, on average, be less able to help the business innovate.  Therefore innovative organisations encourage workers to get to know one another in wide arcs across the company.

In this way, businesses can foster relationships that will make cross-disciplinary project teams thrive.  Company barbecues, picnics, parties, and sports contests, contrary to common perception, are not a waste of time.  They are in fact some of the most important steps a business can take in pursuit of innovation.

Customer feedback

Highly innovative organisations have learned to repress or even eliminate the common ‘kill the messenger’ impulse that can mar their relationships with customers.  These businesses actively solicit feedback from their customers, and what is more, they demonstrate that they value it by taking specific actions in response to it.

An innovative software company producing programs for the classroom, for example, will seek teacher feedback on a regular basis and will be sure to communicate positively with the customer kind enough to offer suggestions.  If software can be adjusted as requested, these changes will be made in the next possible update and the referring teacher informed.  If a new feature cannot be coded, a polite email thanking the teacher for the feedback will be sent, ideally containing a brief explanation of the programming limitations that makes the new feature problematic.

Market analysis

Organisations that excel at innovation are characterised by a workforce brimming with current details about the business itself.  Workers should understand both the target markets and the various sorts of customers who populate them, and they must also possess a ready working knowledge of the organisations competing for these individuals.  Leaders in such organisations regularly bring their teams up to date on current trends relevant to the central mission of the business.

Freedom to fail

No company wants to fail, certainly.  But if the organisation is to be highly innovative, then individual workers and teams must have the freedom to pursue new ideas – even when those ideas fail to pan out.  Quite often, the lessons learned from a “failure” are the very ones that make the company a rousing success later.  One of Apple’s first computers was the Lisa, a colossal market failure – yet the Lisa was an important stepping stone on the way to the hugely successful Macintosh computer.

Cooperation, not competition

Highly innovative organisations encourage cooperation among employees because team members who work together to accomplish a task can take advantage of synergy – the increased creativity and accomplishment that results from team efforts as compared to the sum of individual efforts.  A focus on cooperation can manifest itself in a number of ways beyond merely providing opportunities to socialise.

The physical environment present in the office plays an important role.  When employees are grouped in pods of several workers instead of individual cubbies, it fosters a cooperative atmosphere, as does the ample provision of tools such as white boards and flip charts.  These are designed to be used on a group, not an individual basis.  Collaborative software is another way to encourage cooperation, as is rewarding groups or teams for performance instead of singling out individuals.

Leaders who want to encourage cooperation make a concerted effort to look out for self-promotion and back-stabbing.  Making it clear that team players are the ones who will get ahead can do a great deal to stamp out counter-productive competitive tendencies among group members.

Diversity

Synergy is actually at its most potent when teams are composed of highly diverse individuals.  This is because when each team member brings a different set of talents and perspectives to a task, it can spark high levels of creativity in the group.

Diversity is a multi-faceted concept.  Certainly, a team made up of a single gender or ethnic group will bring certain commonalities to the table, but business diversity should also take into account a number of other factors.  A team made up of people from differing industries may be able to run circles around one that contains only journalists.

Innovation does not happen by itself.  Successful companies must work hard not only to get the ball of creativity rolling, but also to keep it moving towards the target of new products and services that are able to capture both the public’s imagination and the organisation’s target market sector.

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