COMPANIES devote an enormous amount of energy talking about the importance of innovation. But here’s the truth: most companies can’t innovate because everyone’s job is to maintain the status quo.

You and everyone else in your organisation are snowed under making sure you’re doing what your job description says you should be doing. Even if “innovation” is included as a KPI, few companies have an effective innovation process in place. This is because companies are set up to concentrate on the business they do and to make profit.

Everyone’s role is defined and structured to create the best environment for doing that one thing as efficiently as possible. Success means doing the same thing you’ve always done, maybe just a little better each time. Change is discouraged – it’s disruptive and each failure is kept on file. In today’s dynamic environment, your entire industry can change in the time it takes to say “we’re innovative” and as Peter Drucker said, “The enterprise that does not innovate inevitably ages and declines. In a period of rapid change such as the present decline will be fast.” It’s never been more imperative to stop talking about innovation and actually start doing something about it.

Innovation is not to be feared and is not that difficult to encourage and instill in employees. One of the main reasons organisations fail to innovate consistently is that it involves creativity and many managers associate creativity with chaos. Managers like to manage instead of lead and creativity simply refuses to be controlled. Many of our managers still live in the dark ages of apartheid and refuse to encourage innovative thinking. The good news is that you can manage and plan strategies to encourage and cultivate innovation and creativity by:

  • Setting the right achievable goals. Teams should be tasked with tackling specific challenges based on previous successes and achievements. They should however, be encouraged to stretch and to achieve greater success.
  • Give people freedom to create. Bureaucracy, office politics, and the requirement to keep the ship steady all inhibit innovation. Managers must start working outside of the box and must rock the boat from time to time. Encourage people to get results by doing things differently.
  • Designate a senior person as an innovation champion. Decision by committees is the fastest road to failure. Innovation champions make things happen and bring about change, challenge and new ideas.
  • Diversity is a good thing. Nothing kills innovation as quickly as a bunch of people who all think the same. Diversity means nothing more than difference. Recognise the differences that exist in each individual and be prepared to discuss these differences. What is most important is that we never tell another they are wrong just because they think or believe differently to us.
  • Allow time. Some great ideas come in an unexpected moment – most don’t. It takes time to generate, evaluate, test and improve upon ideas. Don’t just jump at the first idea, consider a variety of options and choose the best one.
  • Accept some failures. Traditionally, companies are risk averse, so if an employee fears failure, they won’t try anything different. But by its very nature, innovation means trying things that have not been done before. Consequently there will always be an element of risk. We all learn from mistakes, so allow for them.
  • Reward innovation. Performance evaluations should include an assessment of the number and quality of new ideas individuals put forward (even if the ideas were not implemented). Give recognition where and when it is due.
  • Training, mentoring and coaching. An organisation that encourages and facilitates learning inspires people to greater things. Contrary to popular belief, creative thinking is a skill that can be learned. Work with employees and spend time mentoring and coaching them.

Innovation is not a requirement for companies, but then again, neither is survival.

Des Squire (Managing Member) AMSI and Associates cc. [email protected]

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