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Managing Innovation

Managing Innovation

In the last article, Innovation and its relevance, the importance of innovation as a differentiating strategy was discussed. Innovation is relevant to an organization, and to an individual, as a means of differentiating themselves from their peers and competition. In the rest of the article, though most discussions will be around organizations, the same can be extended to individuals too.

To exploit the value and benefits of Innovation, the organization’s culture must favour a strong innovation framework. As much as innovation is a creativity of the mind, managing it through the right policies and processes are so important. In this discussion, a few key attributes of an innovative organization, or an organization with its roots in innovation, is attempted.

Innovation Culture

Perhaps the first most significant aspect of an innovative organization lies in its very culture. Several cultural aspects are impacted in the process of shaping innovation. Culture defines the organization, and if innovation is to be at the heart of it, culture will have a significant say in determining the role of innovation.

Encourage failures

Innovation involves creativity, ideation, experimentation, and refinement.  In the process, a lot of failures are very likely to be encountered. One in 20 to 25 ideas may end up as new development and products. Does that mean the rest of the ideas are not useful and are to be condemned? If the flow of ideas is not encouraged, there will be a general fear to innovate. So, the first aspect of an innovative culture is to encourage failures – view failure as stepping-stones to success. Here it is apt to recall the famous quote by Thomas Alva Edison, when he was asked about his 1000 failures before he succeeded in making a bulb. He remarked, “It’s not 1000 failures that I encountered; it is just a 1000 step process to inventing the bulb”.  Every failure is a step towards the result.

For an individual too, real failure is when he or she does not raise again and give another go.

Incentive for creativity

Encouraging failures works as a motivation to try again, saving the employees from the stick for the failure. At the same time, the carrot could be in the form of certain incentives, in the form of rewards. Besides, the incentive could also give the innovators an opportunity to participate and play a significant role in the implementation of newer products and technologies.   

Recognition and Communication

Besides providing incentive for innovation, it is important to recognize the innovations in various organization wide fora. One such means could be through organizing innovation competitions to show-case the innovations at regular intervals, say quarterly or annual, and reward the top innovations for that period. Such competitions provide opportunities for the innovators to show-case their creativity and present their ideas with an early implementation to the larger audience in the organization.

Visibility for innovators and their innovation could be in various forms of Leaders’ communication to the organization. It could be in Leadership-talks, through emails or other forms of media like newsletter and so on.

Formalizing Ideation

A very important step in formalizing innovation as part of the culture is to create a formal process for innovation. This process facilitates ideation, filtering the ideas and selecting the right ones for further design and implementation through prototyping eventual production. Defining and creating the process sends out a strong signal to every section of the organization on the commitment that is being made for innovation and in a manner providing for a transparency to ideation and innovation.

Defining a process also enables exploration for tools for ideation and innovation and bring them into active use. Some of the tools could be even formalized for being used in the process of taking the ideation to eventual fruition.

Organization culture is not built in one day but is built brick-by-brick over time. Bringing innovation into the mainstream culture can make it the building blocks and the nucleus of an innovative organization. At an individual level too, creativity, ideation is a virtue to be infused. Challenging oneself every day to think and do differently is the mainstay of innovation in an individual.  

Leaders committed to Innovation

The culture of the organization is built through a continuous commitment from the Leaders of the organization. When we talk of Innovation as a part of the culture, it goes without saying that the senior members and leaders of the organization are continuously committed to innovation. 

In every talk-that-they-walk highlighting innovation helps in reiterating the message continuously to all the employees. Through their talks and in action, innovation as a strong link in the culture is firmly set in the organization.

It is not merely a commitment to innovation through their talk. Active role and participation in furthering innovation and its outcomes show long-term commitment and to what extent they are willing to go for the sake of innovation. Their active participation in following the innovations, the outcomes by way of prototyping and productization, creating the right strategies for the development, marketing, and sales of the results of innovation form a significant link in taking the innovative culture to its completion.  

As we saw in the last section, communication and recognition forms an important part in the culture of the organization. Leaders play a critical role in establishing different communication channels and the competitions and providing the due recognitions in the organization. Their presence and involvement establish the seriousness that is given to innovation in the organization, which also serves as motivator for employees to pursue the path of continuous innovation.

Leaders play their role in furthering innovation by exhibiting their commitment and through active participation and communication in various fora in the organization.

Investing in Innovation

Innovation is a significant motivator to the employees as much as keeping the organization relevant and at the forefront in the industry. All this comes with a cost; certain investments are required in innovation.

As we discussed earlier, failure in innovation is very common. Several attempts and failures are followed by success.  These failures cannot be viewed as lost investment, rather should be viewed as the investment required to reap the success that finally takes shape.

What are these costs that we are talking about? Innovation requires dedicated time. It is not that, a time slot be created every week for ideation and then everyone starts thinking on ideas. Ideation is a continuous process that happens on the job. 

Once certain ideas evolve, then dedicated time will be required to review the idea, refine the idea, and create a prototype to test the viability of the idea. All these activities cannot be assumed to be performed outside of the worktime. If it be, then nothing can be a more severe innovation killer. 

As a rule of thumb, it is a good strategy to set aside at least 15% of every individual’s time, if not more, for activities that are strategic, including innovation.  The time for innovation could be more for some who are more active than others, and less for those not so active. If this time is not carved out and assigned only for these activities, it is more likely to be eaten up by other “urgent” activities of ongoing projects.

Protecting the innovation through appropriate patenting is very important. If any patenting results, such activities require dedicated time and additional expenses.

Once an idea has been worked on and the viability is confirmed, it requires effort to productify and prepare the same for the market. This is another form of cost that is incurred post-innovation.

In Summary

Innovation is very important for being relevant in the industry today; it is also a means of challenging the employees to think creatively and grow. As any other activity, innovation needs appropriate focus from the Leadership team and foster a culture across the organization. Innovation also demands investment be made upfront, benefits of which would follow, though the benefits could be very significant that the investment is often justified in the longer term.

About the Author

Dr. Anand Lakshmanan is a Senior-Member of IEEE, a Technologist and an Organization builder. He is currently pursuing advisory and consulting roles for EdTech companies, and member of curriculum committee and Senate in Institutes of National repute.