Small Steps to Start an Innovation Culture
Let’s start with a little context… I started thinking about this blog a little while ago sitting in the foyer of a training building waiting to enter a large auditorium type room to present on innovation to a large cross function client team.
The topic I’d been asked to speak on was slightly different than normal, in that it wasn’t a point of view on the latest technology trends or a specific innovation focus area like cloud, mobile or analytics. Neither was it on one of the other topics I frequently lead talks on – for example how to drive successful joint innovation together (although there was an element of that included).
Instead I'd been invited to give a point of view on what innovation is, why it is so important and make some personal recommendations on the actions needed to create, drive and sustain an “innovation culture”.
As I sat there waiting for the call to go in, I reflected that all this was perhaps a bit removed from my background experience of being a technical leader in IBM. For example I was formerly the IBM Chief Architect on a number of client accounts but now have the somewhat grand title of Client Chief Innovation Officer.
Not that I’ve lost my technical skills in this role. They have become broader. I still apply them all the time, particularly when developing and delivering specific client innovation projects. But I have taken on and (hopefully!) learned how to apply a lot of other skills at the same time. Often these are the softer skills – people, relationship, negotiation and communications. Personally I think these are all absolutely critical but I’d better get back to the point of the blog – innovation culture.
On that day I considered I had a few things in my favour. I’d been doing a lot of reading and thinking around the topic over the last twelve months and I did have a point of view to discuss. Equally importantly I was speaking to what I consider to be a very progressive client team who I considered to be up for the discussion.
What is innovation anyway - with a focus on delivery and value...
The door opened and I was beckoned in. After a quick introduction I started on familiar ground – the old chestnut of what innovation means (for more detail see just about any other article I have written on innovation…). I shared my view that innovation can legitimately mean different things to different organisations and to different people and functions within the same organisation. Each organisation and team needs to think through what innovation really means to them in their own context.
Then I gave a flavour of my own personal definition – “innovation is using ideas to do new things, or change the way we do existing things, to drive value for our businesses, customers and colleagues” and about “selecting the right ideas and delivering them.” You can have great ideas but without the delivery there is no innovation.
After asking the audience for their own favourite innovations I shared a couple of my own, including a modern one and an ancient one. The modern one was the iPhone (ok not that original but mine means a lot to me and I admire the way Apple bring a lot of technology together and then focus on the customer experience) and the historical one was not the invention of the first wheel but the innovation around use of a second wheel and particularly the axle between them. The delivery of which has driven an incalcuable amount of value over the years.
What makes an innovative enterprise?
It was then onto thoughts on what makes an innovative enterprise – amalgamated from various studies, papers and reports - and elements of a class that I give to client facing teams on innovation along with a small team of other IBMers. Without repeating en masse – innovation messages from the top, ideas from all, extensive external collaboration, integration of business and technology, balanced risk taking, management trust and an active flow of ideas into, out of and also outside of a managed innovation process - with metrics, rewards and positive communications. Ok I’ve repeat most of the points I made but for space I won’t embellish them here. We also highlight that different models exist from incremental to disruptive and that often different organisations focus on and excel (or don’t) in different types of innovation – business model, operations, service innovation and so on.
Making innovation real with relevant stories
At this stage I highlighted some of the innovations already happening in the client’s own organisation – from significant examples taken from the corporate website to incremental and service innovations that I knew were already being driven by the client’s team and an example of a joint service innovation between IBM and the client.
I won’t repeat these here as they are client specific but I will say that stories are important. People relate to them and they make this stuff real. I talked about these because many people in the room were directly involved with them. In a number of ways they were already innovators.
The tagline of the last point was important – “innovation is something we can all do.” It’s not something that just the research or the innovation or the product people do. It comes in many guises – and it’s always the delivery of value that is important.
My short time slot was running out. How should the client develop an innovation culture? One of the starting points was already in place – innovation is definitely seen as and communicated as a priority from the CxO team. But how do they better make use of the great pool of untapped ideas in their people (and their partners like IBM)?
Like the majority of organisations the client was not in a position to give a large part of the workforce half a day every couple of weeks to sit back and come up with new ideas. But I argued people still needed to make time to reflect – to think about what could be done better, what could be done differently and what shouldn’t be done at all.
My recommendations included taking some small starter steps. One of these was creating a low / no cost platform for highlighting and collaboratively developing ideas by using existing collaboration tools and re-purposing their use for a mini “Idea Jam” style online event.
I stressed that this should be focused on a small number of questions or challenges around existing strategic priorities. Like many organisations, the client already has a to-do list as long as your arm so my recommendation was to use innovation, initially at least, to focus on these rather than create something totally new. How could things already planned be done faster, more efficiently, more cost effectively?
I argued that the team should not try to do much at first but get this first focused ideas event right. Sponsor and drive the preparation and execution – engage as many as possible employees (and the IBM team too which in effect makes up a large part of the client's team) to join in, share and collaborate around their ideas – and then focus on taking a small number of the best ideas forward. Ensure they are acted upon, championed and delivered. Measure the benefits, reward the originators, use positive communications to tell the success stories.
Don’t try to change everything over night. Cultural change takes time but do these first steps quickly to gain momentum. Make a success of them and then repeat - and use the success to move on to take some of the bigger steps needed.
And that was pretty much what I finished on. It seemed to go down well and at least I was asked back later that day to repeat the talk again, as the sessions were being run in two halves. Of course the proof now is in the pudding and I hope to talk more on that some time in the future…
P.S. There's one other thing I'd add which I see happening in many places at the moment with very positive results. Create a platform where people can innovate - quickly compose and try out new apps etc and/or run a hackathon for example - by using capabilities that many people can use some without coding etc skills. There is so much to say around this that's it probably worthy of a topic on its own...