Innovate Before It’s Too Late!

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How to Nurture Innovation and Avoid Stagnation

Businesses that fail to prioritise innovation are unlikely to thrive – or ultimately survive – in today’s increasingly competitive market with the need and expectation for continuous improvement.

The light-speed pace of technological development, ever more demanding clients, plus unrelenting competition is forcing businesses to look for new ways of doing things to give them an edge. So how do businesses get that edge? They must innovate!

But of course it’s not quite that easy. It’s all very well to command “Innovate before it’s too late!”, but how can a business incorporate the necessary elements to continually improve itself through innovation?

First and foremost, it takes an all-inclusive approach. All parts of the organisation – from strategy and structure, to values and employees must be entwined with a view to supporting innovation. One of the greatest challenges businesses face is to maintain strong levels of innovation throughout all stages of their corporate life-cycle.

Many organisations become ham-strung by systems and processes that can crush innovation or, at best, put it on the back-burner. New businesses are usually hives of innovation, whereas mature companies find it increasingly difficult to nurture. However, by using approaches that have been proven to support company-wide innovation, your business will be ready, willing and able to innovate instead of stagnate.

Culture

Organisational culture – the shared values, beliefs and behavioural norms that shape a company – plays a critical role. Culture feeds all other factors that make innovation possible within a business.

So what kind of culture drives innovation? One that has a strong shared vision, flexibility, openness, tolerance to risk and failure, and one that values empowerment. Creativity, excellence and open communication should be vigorously encouraged, and companies must provide a clear and meaningful over-arching purpose. These features, together with a culture that is sufficiently different from its competitors, can provide a sustained competitive advantage. Most importantly, the business has written policies and procedures that ensure the above is known and applied.

Strategy

Strategically, innovation must form a loud and clear priority. Firstly, it must start with a future-looking shared vision that is client and market-focused. Strategy that enables creativity and innovation must reflect your business values and priorities as well as be flexible and dynamic (to get a better and adaptable fit with rapidly changing external environments).

Pursuing ‘open innovation’ is also strategically important, particularly for firms operating in fast-paced environments. Open innovation harnesses ideas from external sources, using them to complement internal ideas or drive new ideas altogether while shortening the time to bring the ideas to market. Execution of an open innovation program varies but is generally developed through the systematic use of a broad range of formal and informal networks (proprietary, external experts, clients). It relies heavily on fluid boundaries between the internal and external world.

Structure

In general, flatter, organic structures work better to support innovative and entrepreneurial businesses. Why? Because structures implicitly reinforce organisational values which can either boost or crush innovation. Flat structures promote autonomy and empowerment, in addition to encouraging employee cooperation. These are essential ingredients for creativity and innovation. Importantly, flatter structures reduce hierarchy which speeds up decision-making and implementation which in itself allows for a larger flow of entrepreneurial initiatives. Organic structures have the added advantage of performing better in turbulent environments too.

Pay Extra for Exceptional Performance

The right reward systems play an important support mechanism for innovation. Since reward systems are all about motivation, they should mirror a company’s values and objectives. Rewarding desired behaviours (such as innovation) helps create dominant forms of behaviour within a business. Generally, a ‘stewardship’ based system, one that provides intrinsic rewards such as autonomy and empowerment, are best for fostering creativity and innovation.

However, it is important too for employees to be financially compensated for proven performance. The bonus paid must reflect the additional performance by the employee that exceeds planned expectations. Most importantly rewards for innovation should match the impact of that innovation – it would be counterproductive to offer a day off if the innovation brought a material benefit to the firm.

Leadership Style

Leadership is one of the most important factors affecting innovation. It drives culture, vision and strategy. To enable innovation within a firm, management style should be democratic and participatory. Management must actively support and encourage entrepreneurial behaviour. This style of leadership must be entrenched across all levels of a business (senior, middle and first-level), working together to actively drive a culture of innovation.

The Right Employee and an Emphasis on Skill

To create a pro-innovation business, a number of initiatives can be taken in relation to job design and recruitment. These include broad job scopes, less structured jobs, high employee involvement, broad career paths, and results-oriented job design. Where possible, hire ‘generalist-experts’, employees with depth in their area of expertise but with strong general skills as well. These employees’ will be able to add value to the entire business.

Conclusion

Pro-active firms seeking to prioritise innovation must take a dynamic, 360-degree approach that integrates every part of an organisation’s operations. In what is always a rapidly transforming competitive landscape, innovation and the desire for continuous improvement are the keys to businesses’ ongoing competiveness.

Innovation should not be simply thought of as a new way of making something or a tangible invention. Innovation in how organisations empower and engage their employees is also very important, more so because such cultures are proven to create the necessary environment that is conducive to delivering innovation.

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