Enjoying summer? Here is my final post on how to build an innovation culture, mostly authored by a good colleague of mine Bhaskar Venkatasubramanian. Please enjoy the final four steps….(read here for Steps 1, 2 & 3 and Steps 4, 5 & 6).
7. Innovation is fuzzy—it’s not binary…
Innovation programs (e.g., special teams, idea portals, R&D labs, etc.) are not machines with assigned employees as cogs. Structures such as review councils with pre-determined rules and controls that require “lever pulling” and “go/no-go signals” often do not advance innovation over the long term, nor do they help in sustaining and nurturing innovation.
Leaders need to see their innovation programs as a valuable way of listening to individuals’ hopes and dreams, connected to a higher business purpose. They have to periodically intervene to inspire, renew and reassure employees, as well as make it easier to try and test ideas without the fear of failure. A few months ago in a town hall, one of our employees asked for special support arrangements for new mothers; even though their numbers were small, the leaders took the cue and launched a series of measures geared toward new moms in our facilities, across locations. In another internal example, one of our IT application development teams hit a rough patch due to the large number of testing failures. Sensing a morale problem, the project leader tweaked his organization by joining developers with testers in a single team at the design stage. This paved the way toward charting a “test protocol-driven” application development process, thus reducing the need for testing efforts at a later stage.
8. Get stuck in…
Leaders need to see their innovation programs as a valuable way of listening to individuals’ hopes and dreams, connected to a higher business purpose. Innovation programs are not machines with assigned employees as cogs.
Leaders need to go beyond vetting their employees’ ideas and pontificating on the precise next steps. They need to set a general direction in terms of priority and context and then help the team overcome major organizational and cultural impediments. They should commit to obtaining the resources to advance ideas that show promise and share with employees which ideas may not get the required funding. They should empower their teams to form their own rules and intervene only in high-risk situations. Here’s an example of how this worked. One of our BPO teams was unable to see the emerging big picture when a client changed a significant portion of its business practices. The BPO support teams were mired in silos, aggravated by several groups working across different locations and time zones. The BPO team leader quickly engaged each group to (literally) draw the big picture, showing how each individual contributes to the whole and what had changed. He then asked them how their support process could be improved in the changed scenario. This leader periodically asked the team for its ideas and actively “got stuck in” understanding and identifying the ideas that emerged. He then followed up with the client leadership to implement the best ideas; this in turn energized the entire team because it could now see how its ideas contributed to the client’s success. This motivated the staff, propelling it to deliver 20% more productivity improvements by identifying and quickly overcoming slack spots.
9. Plan for change, not pain…
Some leaders and managers see innovation as complicated and threatening, something that is optional and outside of their regular work. Others see innovation as something that can always be postponed and is to be endured only when the company is desperate for new ideas. They subconsciously sidestep many innovation opportunities until they become absolutely necessary and then make changes when they are handed down by senior leaders as a decree.
10. See Innovation as fun, not a chore…
One of the few remaining joys in the working world is the a-ha moment of “getting” an idea and the excitement of experimenting with it. Leaders have the responsibility of making innovation a fun, enjoyable and rewarding experience; success, therefore, needs to be redefined as group participation in a journey, rallying around the team and making the whole notion of innovation inherently enjoyable, not reduced to a chore with an obsessive focus on quarterly monetary results.
While taking these 10 steps to building an innovation culture, another unforeseen but important benefit we see in Cognizant and you will find is higher employee engagement, indicating increased business effectiveness and employee satisfaction levels. The simple act of asking employees for ideas that go beyond their day job provides a larger challenge and bigger purpose; by posting ideas, seeing their ideas in action along with their colleagues’ ideas and competing and collaborating, they feel more highly valued.
Innovation powered by “Meaning Making”
The life-blood of any company is the ability to improve product and service development. Leading innovative cultures are essential while technology increasingly plays a critical role. Winning companies create business value by building a richer understanding of their customers, products, employees and their partners. They extract business meaning from the torrents of data thrown off by corporate processes. Expect to see analytic processes not just measure and calculate how our customers feel about a product but also how customers will react to its next release or even in the moment, when it’s actually working. The business stakes of “meaning-making” could not be higher. Deciding on what data means and how it can drive revenue (better products), reduce cost (streamline supply chains) or eliminate risk drives the science of “Meaning Making”. This is a new era in business, one which innovative behaviours are driven as much by insight and foresight as by physical products and assets themselves. Seethe Cost of Signal and the Value of Noise and Business analytics in Europe.