Three Must-Haves to Accelerate Your Company’s Innovation

First appeared as a Forbes Coaches Council article on August 3, 2017.

It’s believed that Albert Einstein called the definition of insanity “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This idea should heighten the urgency for every business leader to be more innovative as a means to prevent insanity, keep yourself relevant and outperform your competitors.

How can you optimize innovation for your organization?

Customer Insights

Innovation is great, but unless someone buys what you’re innovating, what’s the point? If your goal is to provide innovative products and services to your existing customers, ask them for their opinions.

First, learn about customer likes and dislikes regarding your existing offerings. Then, get them to think beyond your current products and services by asking what they would wish for if the sky was the limit. The direction in which they steer you could very well lead to increased sales growth with existing customers, while also creating solutions that appeal to new customers.

It also behooves you to get the opinions of people outside of your current customer base who don’t even know what you do. How do they see the category in which you are trying to innovate?

This group will be less likely to limit their ideas to minor expansions on your current offerings. If you design new products based on what they suggest, these not-yet-customers may expand your market share in directions you hadn’t foreseen with both new and existing customers.

The Right Environment

Corporate culture affects employee engagement, customer engagement and your ability to innovate. Colorful walls, workplace flexibility and state-of-the-art technology can all contribute to an innovative culture, but you also want a culture where creativity and expression are encouraged. New ways of thinking increase innovation and improve day-to-day processes.

You may want to consider which people work best in teams and which work best on their own. Typically, a healthy combination of the two work styles works well because groups can brainstorm solutions that incorporate ideas from a variety of perspectives, yet there is still a need to hunker down and turn those ideas into designs that can become a reality.

Some people think a creative environment means there are no rules, but in fact, social norms must be established. Set ground rules for brainstorming sessions, the most important of which is that no one speaks negatively of anyone’s ideas. In environments where leadership has strong opinions, it can be helpful to host initial brainstorming meetings without the leaders in the room, so employees feel free to truly share without fear of judgment. The right setting for creativity to flow heavily depends on the attitudinal environment that leaders establish. This enables you to start with a limitless set of ideas, which you can then prioritize based on alignment, feasibility and profitability.

Bold Leadership

While many leaders rely on their employees to create innovative solutions, there are some key leadership principles that must be in place to enable innovation. One is being open to failure. If everything is perfect the first time, I guarantee your company is not as innovative as it could be.

In 1985, New Coke did not generate the expected return on investment, but it got people talking about how they had always loved Coca-Cola just the way it was. It also provided unexpected marketing research, since replacing the traditional Coke recipe and image with new ones revealed the public’s emotional attachment to Coca-Cola. After the public rejected New Coke and the company went back to its original formula, they reclaimed the market share they were after and also had a better understanding of how the public felt about its brand.

After all that, who got fired? No one. That kind of managing sends the message that we should try lots of things even though they may not work. Failure is good because you never know where it will lead: Coca-Cola was desperate to keep its No. 1 spot over Pepsi, and in the end, it succeeded.

When something is a huge success, make sure the employees involved are rewarded with both tangible and intangible rewards. For example, bonuses are great and should be given to people who think of successful innovations, but don’t forget to say thank you, too. This can be a handshake, a thank you note or, better yet, formal recognition in front of the entire staff. When you formally recognize your innovators, it not only makes them want to continue being creative, but shows the rest of your employees the rewards for being innovative.

Whether your focus is on continuous innovation or on creating a specific project, you must appropriately budget for innovation. It is impossible to create new products and services without adequate funds for salaries or physical resources. Many companies say they are invested in innovation, but don’t give it the time, budget or respect it deserves.

If you want to be an innovative company, you need to put these elements in place. These steps may sound simple, but implementing them can be challenging. It takes time, people, and money to win more business, but the time and money you spend on becoming more innovative will pay for itself tenfold.

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