Unlocking the Innovator Within Your Employees

Digital disruption, accelerated global competition and heightened consumer expectations are transforming industries around the globe, reshaping markets, creating new business models and overturning long-standing incumbents. As a result, companies are realizing they must become more innovative – and they must do it quickly – or risk being put out of business. Despite these market threats, research by KPMG revealed that most innovation programs at large enterprises are only in the earliest stages when it comes to the maturity of their innovation initiatives. They have little to no structure for fostering innovation and are failing to invest significantly enough in implementing meaningful innovation programs.

So what are the missing ingredients in rolling out more impactful innovation programs that are set up for lasting success? It may seem counterintuitive, but the answer is this: Focus on the innovators, not the innovation. In other words, businesses must invest more in their people.

Often, companies equate innovation with new technologies, but that is a very limited viewpoint. Innovation is more than just a new technological invention or new product development. Innovation can be a new operational process that reduces costs or speeds delivery; it can be a new business model that delivers services to customers in a better way; it can even be a new way of working with partners. Like happiness, innovation is a state of mind—an attitude. It is a culture. It is an ongoing approach that connects personal passions with business goals, and it must be interwoven throughout every aspect of the organization, every day. This mindset must come from the people of an organization, not from a flow chart.

The good news is that every company is capable of cultivating this mindset and this culture. Innovation already exists within your company. It lives among the employees and lies within their collective knowledge – you just need to unlock it. Here’s how:

Begin with management

An innovation mindset cannot be mandated or instituted from the top down; but at the same time, executive support is still essential. Employees must see that innovation is a true priority for the leadership team and not something to which the company merely pays lip-service. When executives demonstrate that they are passionate about innovation, it becomes contagious and permeates the entire workforce, inspiring employees in all regions, functions and grade levels.

Connect all employees to the company’s mission

Research shows that an alarming 70 percent of America’s workers report being disengaged and emotionally disconnected from their employers. As a result, they are not working to their full potential. Often, this happens because employees feel they don’t have a voice in their organization. In many companies, people feel they are divided into classes: roles that are perceived as adding value to the organization and roles that aren’t. For example, in a technology company, people may falsely believe that only the engineers and sales teams add real value. Other roles in the organization may viewed as less important.

It’s critical to show employees that for any success to happen, everyone in the organization must make a meaningful contribution. Listen to employees and make sure they feel that their role adds value. Reinforce and repeatedly share the company’s mission, goals and overarching strategy for getting there – and make sure every employee understands how their job function contributes to that. Tie the company’s strategy to the necessity for internal innovation and encourage employees to bring their innovative ideas to the table, no matter their role.

Emphasize that innovation is everyone’s job

Along those same lines, it’s important for employees to understand that innovation is everyone’s job and responsibility. Innovation does not belong to a certain business unit, such as R&D or product development – it can come from anyone, anywhere at any time. By providing opportunities for employees across all job functions and at all levels of the organization to voice and develop their innovative ideas, it creates a sense of ownership among employees and broadens the responsibility for innovation to each and every employee. Think of innovation as a team sport. Everyone has a key role, must participate and work toward the same goal.

Embrace diversity

Disruptive ideas rarely occur when everyone in the room comes from the same background and point of view. Rather, a more diverse team – whether that diversity is around gender, ethnicity, cultural or socio-economic backgrounds, education levels or ages – produce the most valuable breakthroughs. Research has shown that hiring a more diverse workforce results in companies becoming more innovative, resilient and productive.

Break down organizational silos to create opportunities for employees from different backgrounds, experiences and job functions to work together on projects. Encourage employees to share different viewpoints; celebrate people and teams who are willing to voice dissent, but also work together with their varied talents, skills and perspectives. This type of cross-pollination of ideas and skills leads to the most valuable innovations and keeps employees more fully engaged.

Encourage curiosity and experimentation

Ultimately, innovation comes down to curiosity. It’s important for businesses to encourage a curious, experimental and entrepreneurial mindset among employees. Employees must not be afraid to take risks or fail. The lessons learned from trying and failing are often what spurs the next successful innovation by redirecting us to try a different approach. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos credits willingness to take risks and fail as one of the key elements to his company’s success, saying, “I believe we are the best place in the world to fail (we have plenty of practice!), and failure and invention are inseparable twins.” When a company embraces this attitude, it mitigates the stress of failure and encourages employees to try new ideas.

Ultimately, innovation is about people, their passions and talents, not technology. By focusing on the innovator rather than the innovation, businesses can create a powerful shift in corporate culture, one that drives a can-do attitude among employees companywide to search and strive for the latest breakthrough. In doing so, organizations will set themselves up for ongoing success today and in the future, no matter what the competitive landscape brings.

This article originally appeared in MarTech Advisor.

 

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