How Can Companies Innovate? Let Me Count the Ways

Ann All

Using the right words can certainly tip the balance in your favor. Look at the highly charged debate over abortion. Those favoring abortion rights call themselves "pro choice" while abortion opponents call themselves "pro life." It's awfully hard to argue against either of those things.


Abortion opponents like to call proponents "pro murder" or talk about baby-killing. Abortion rights supporters accuse the anti-abortion movement of taking away a woman's right to choose. It's pretty hard to get on board with any of those things.


But if you use words too much or apply them too liberally, they can lose a lot of their meaning. Technology vendors are among the worst offenders when it comes to overusing the word "innovation" as I wrote a few weeks ago. At least some folks would likely argue that President Obama may have talked up innovation a bit too much in his recent weekly radio and Internet address, applying it to several of his favorite topics, including health care and clean energy. Still, it's hard to argue against Obama's call for applying more creative thinking to solving big problems. He said:

Innovation has been essential to our prosperity in the past, and it will be essential to our prosperity in the future.

With the idea of innovation fresh in my mind following Obama's address, I saw a list of 50 ways to foster a sustainable culture of innovation on The Heart of Innovation blog. I liked it right off the bat due to its emphasis right in the headline on creating a sustainable innovation culture. Too many people continue to see innovation as an unpredictable, one-off activity rather than a practice that can improve with the right people and processes behind it.


I won't try to list all 50 ways. (For that, you'll need to read the excellent original post.) But here are a few of my favorites from the list, a number of which I've touched upon previously in this blog. (My thoughts are in parentheses):


  • Help people broaden their perspective by creating diverse teams and rotating employees into new projects -- especially ones they are fascinated by. (I wrote about this same idea last year, citing former Gartner Fellow Bruce Rogow's belief that employees with really diverse ideas should be allowed to compete against the parent company and a 37signals article that recommends keeping employee teams small and nimble.)
  • When you're promoting innovation in-house, always promote the benefits of a new idea or project, not the features. (This is a frequent knock against IT, that it tends to emphasize cool new technical bells-and-whistles rather than how they can be used to help attain business goals.)
  • Create a portfolio of opportunities: short-term, long-term, incremental and discontinuous. Just like an investment portfolio, balance is critical. (I just wrote about this one last week, with a post about project portfolio management.)
  • Don't make innovation the responsibility of a few. Make innovation the responsibility of each and every employee with performance goals for each and every functional area.
  • Know that attacking costs as a root problem solves nothing. Unreasonable costs are almost always a sign of more profound problems such as inefficient structures, processes or training.
  • Avoid analysis paralysis. Chaotic action is preferable to orderly inaction.
  • Select and install idea management software for your intranet. (Or, if you've got an intranet and certain directories available to everyone, set up your own idea depository/database and make it as interactive as you want.)
  • Remove whatever organizational obstacles are in the way of people communicating bold, new ideas to top management. (For most companies, this will involve making collaboration more horizontal, to help employees communicate across functional and organizational boundaries.)


A number of these suggestions can and should be incorporated into "grassroots pilots" focused on innovation, a concept recommended by Gartner's Kathy Harris that I wrote about back in May.

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