At one of the most recent companies I worked for, a start-up in Silicon Valley, this quote was written on the wall to remind us that we were just one good idea away from fame and fortune—and that we needed to come up with that idea as soon as humanly possible. When I left the company, the “idea whose time has come” was still just a sign on the wall, a reminder that developing the next big thing is much easier said than done.
The pressure to innovate is not limited to Silicon Valley startups, it’s felt by organizations everywhere that are trying to do more with less while fighting to stay globally competitive. But while all organizations feel the pressure to innovate, few are able to make innovation a workplace reality.
Larry Keeley of Doblin Inc. believes that innovation is just another business process waiting to be standardized. According to Keeley, once we crack the “genetic code” of innovation, it will be achievable by all businesses, and will be taught in schools alongside other management science courses like risk mitigation or strategic planning. I don’t know if I agree with Keeley that innovation is as simple as cracking a code, but I do agree that humans are born with the innate desire to problem-solve, which can translate into innovation. Here are a few thoughts I have about tapping into that natural problem-solving instinct to develop a more innovative workforce.
Enable people to solve their own problems
One way to activate the creativity of employees is to develop an environment where problem-solving is encouraged. I believe we are all inclined to innovate and problem-solve within our own space, so empowering employees to see the workplace as an extension of that space can give them the confidence they need to bring new ideas to the table. Take the case of Arena—our organization exists because our founders Michael and Eric needed a better way to manage their product data—they had a problem, and they fixed it. I’m not saying everyone needs to be a company founder, but the desire to solve problems is what creates companies, and is what can lead to a more innovative workforce.
While people can and do solve problems in their personal lives, they don’t always feel empowered to make changes when obstacles, difficult personalities or red-tape get in the way at work. When employees are regularly given ownership of their problems, as well as the freedom to find and implement solutions of their choosing, they begin to realize no obstacle is insurmountable. Once problem-solving becomes a part of one’s daily work responsibilities, solving larger organizational issues becomes much less daunting.
Make innovation cool
Another way businesses can encourage innovation is to make it “cool.” Promoting opportunities for employees to try new and fun things in the workplace—as well as offering rewards for innovative activities outside the workplace—teaches that experimentation, creativity and exploration are worthwhile pursuits.
A company that does a good job of this is Box.net, a software company in Palo Alto, CA. Box hosts all-night brainstorm/hack-fests for its employees in which any idea is encouraged with beer and pizza. The following day, the ideas and stories from the night before are highly praised and promoted by team members—some are even adopted for the product—making it a fun and rewarding way to think outside the box.
For manufacturing organizations, a hack-fest might not be the right outlet, but there are other ways to promote innovation within the workplace—for example, Google asks its employees to spend one day a week working on projects outside their usual job description to encourage innovation.
And there are plenty of events employees could be encouraged to attend outside regular business hours, like the recent Maker Faire. Maker Faire encourages people to “celebrate [the] right to tweak, hack, and bend any technology to your own will.” In other words, it encourages people to take something old and make something new. To innovate.
If employees regularly see innovation displayed in a positive and fun light, and are rewarded for their more innovative personal pursuits, they will be much more likely to mimic that behavior in the workplace.
You want to be different, so be different already!
We demand innovation from the workforce, yet many businesses are still frightened by ideas, behaviors or lifestyles that break with tradition or conventional wisdom. Businesses ask people to innovate, but only within the set paradigm.
To truly encourage an innovative and “different” kind of culture and thinking, you have to break free from this trap.
In highly innovative circles, thinking-outside-the-box isn’t just an expression, it’s a way of life. PayPal founder Peter Thiel famously offered students $100k to quit college, believing they would do better with “two years of mentoring from a network of tech and entrepreneurial experts and $100,000 to start a business.” It may sound crazy, but there’s no denying students who took the offer got a crash-course in Innovation 101.
Many of today’s business heroes are people with life paths that deviated from the status quo. Some dropped out of college, or forwent the experience all together—including Mark Zuckerberg , Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
Tomorrow’s business heroes may not do things in an expected way either, and may look different than you expect—your company may not be ready for pink hair, nose studs and leather boots, but allowing deviations from the norm when you can is a step in the right direction. You want an organization that does things differently, that thinks differently? Then be different.
Encouraging innovation in your workforce is an ongoing process
There’s no shortage of books and resources with varying methodologies that can help you get started if you’re looking to adopt more formal innovation processes. If you’re not quite there, encouraging employees to become more curious thinkers could be a first step toward a culture that seeks new solutions for business-related challenges.
Human curiosity, when fostered correctly, is what leads people to pioneer new cures for diseases, more efficient forms of energy and new ways to see the world. You don’t need to hire a team of geniuses to achieve innovation, but you do need to give your workforce the confidence and incentive to solve the problems around them, until problem-solving becomes just another part of the culture.