Think about some of the most innovative companies in the world, Airbnb or Uber, for example. The technology behind their products is not exceptional or groundbreaking: geo-localised content on a website and mobile app. However, their business models are innovative. They found a loophole and were able to connect demand with a previously untapped supply in a new way. This is innovation in action.
Unfortunately, very few companies actually get it right. Innovation has become a bit of an overused buzzword nowadays. A lot of companies are out there preaching about innovative work cultures or talking about how they’ve transformed their company to become more innovative. In reality, a lot of these companies have a misguided approach to innovation, one that prevents innovation from actually happening.
To have an innovative work culture, your entire workforce has to become innovative. A lot of times, you will find companies who set up an Innovation Lab or Centre that is headed by a Chief Innovation Officer with the expectation that this will automatically make the whole company innovative. It doesn’t work that way. To set up systems that enable innovation, you’ll first need to understand what it actually means.
Think about someone who works a postal route. What does this person actually do? Their role is the effective passage of information. If they find a way to get that information to you faster, that’s innovation.
Often, you’ll find the words innovation and disruption being used interchangeably. Disruption is a big bang, it’s something that flips the status quo. Innovation, on the other hand, is about smaller, incremental changes that add up and transform your business for the better. It’s about improving on processes to be more efficient. It’s about using technology in interesting ways to solve a problem.
You’ll find that a lot of top-level leaders get caught up with this idea of innovation. They see competitors setting up innovation labs, and don’t want to be left behind. So they set up innovation labs of their own. They hire people who are well-versed in technology and various digital platforms, and build a team dedicated solely to digital innovation. The mindset tends to be “we have people working on innovation and therefore, we are becoming innovative and progressive.”. This is innovation for innovation’s sake, and it’s not an effective approach.
There are many reasons why you might not be engaging with innovation effectively. Firstly, rethink how you view technology. Technology is just a tool that enables innovation. In itself, technology is not necessarily innovative. You need to have a vision and a strategy as to how you’re going to adopt this technology and make it work for you. That’s innovation - it’s about the people who make the technology go the extra mile.
Secondly, isolating your innovation to just one team does not transform your business. Innovation needs to permeate across the entire organisation, from top-down as well as bottom-up. You have to question if your organisational culture and structure enables your employees to be innovative. With larger, more traditional companies, the infrastructure is built around people. It is an analogue structure, but one that generates revenue.
What often ends up happening is that the leadership realises there’s a need to innovate, and they incorporate a digital and technologically advanced structure atop of this analogue structure. They then pull top performers from the earlier structure to the tech structure and expect people to automatically become innovative. The problem is that the culture hasn’t changed to meet the new digital framework. With this lack of a sound foundation for innovation, the company begins to look like an unsteady Jenga block.
Innovation is primarily a culture issue, and outdated work cultures aren’t going to foster innovation. If you have senior leadership who are out of touch with the technological solutions they’re looking to adopt, you’re not going to get very far as an organisation. Also, if your culture favours the opinions of only a few employees, you’re not setting yourself up for a level playing field that fosters innovative thinking across the organisation.
Lastly, you need to strike a balance between experimenting with new ideas and technology by adding commercial value to the business. While you can set up all the Innovation Labs in the world, unless you have a clear idea of what you want to achieve and actively work towards it, your innovation efforts are simply a waste of your resources.
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