Innovation and organizational learning are inextricably connected. A company must learn from its mistakes and cultivate multiple pathways for recognizing and leveraging the best ideas effectively, whether those ideas come from inside or outside of the organization, says Jim Clemmer. Here are 35 ways to sharpen your organizational “innovation radar,” to accelerate learning cycles and recognize and capitalize on opportunities faster.

Listen to the voice of your customer

1. Make sure the “voice of the market” pervades every part of your organization. Bring customers into your company offices and plants for visits, joint problem solving and planning sessions, celebrations, focus groups, conferences, barbecues, presentations, and the like. Get everyone in your organization out to see customers or into the real world on a regular basis.

2. Make your senior managers responsible for at least some business development and ongoing customer service. They should be spending 25 to 35 percent or more of their time with customers (the same amount of time should also be spent with external and internal partners). Ensure that some part of their compensation is linked to your team or organization’s new business or product development success. Don’t allow managers to only cost cut and quality control their way to profitability and performance bonuses. Make sure it’s balanced with innovation and growth.

3. A favorite example of servant-leader innovation is the architect who waited to put the sidewalks into his new residential complex until the buildings’ customers had worn paths in the grass. Then he laid the sidewalks over those paths.

4. The people selling in your target markets and serving your customers are innovating every day to meet unexpected needs, beat out a competitor, or capitalize on a new opportunity. Unless you have a user-friendly, easy process (not an administrative bureaucracy) for gathering all that experience and market intelligence, you’re recklessly squandering one your organization’s richest sources of innovation. You might hire a business student to seek out and document all this innovation and entrepreneurship.

5. You should also build an ongoing process to keep this experience base updated and widely available to everyone. This, rather than strategic planning, is the kind of planning a strategic improvement team should be working on. But you want to be sure that they keep the process easy to use and user-friendly.

6. Identify your leading-edge external customers and partners and bring them into your product and service development processes. Ideally, these are customers and partners who extensively use your products and services. But they keep pushing everything and everybody to the limit. They are always looking for new and better ways to use your products and services.

7. Find out what problems they’re trying to solve that no one else in your market provides solutions for. But don’t confuse leading-edge customers with those that scream the loudest, are the most loyal, or give you the most business. Many good or vocal customers don’t push your thinking or teach you how to apply your product and services in new ways. Leading-edge customers are often “bleeding edge” customers as well. They’re not always easy or fun to deal with.

8. Establish active user and support networks. Provide regular face-to-face, electronic, print, or audio-video forums to help customers, external partners (like distributors and suppliers), and internal partners exchange experiences, ideas, and problem solve. Capture and disseminate all this learning throughout your organization.

9. Keep asking your customers and partners lots of “What if?” questions. Take good notes and circulate them throughout your organization. Beware of people trying to write all this off as just wishful thinking. Remind them that somebody’s wishful thinking brought us every service and product we use today, developed our modern economy, and gave us one of the richest lifestyles in the history of the world. Leaders find ways to translate wishful thinking into the “logical and obvious” products and services we eventually take for granted.

Cultivate a culture where experimentation is honored

10. If your team or organization doesn’t have a disciplined management system and supportive leadership culture, innovation and organizational learning is just wishful thinking.

11. The only place you should try “doing it right the first time” is with established, repetitive processes. Beyond that, this quality improvement cliché can kill innovation. A major study from the American Quality Foundation concluded, “we don’t do things right the first time. Trial and error — making mistakes, experiencing failures, and learning from them — is how we improve. We need mistakes in order to learn; they are an integral part of how we get better. Urging Americans to ‘do it right the first time’ means asking them to omit a step in their improvement process. It won’t work…if Rocky had done it right the first time, there would have been no movie.”

12. I received a seminar brochure advertising an “innovation lab” and a “change workshop.” These were “designed for mid-level management and professional employees with responsibilities for change and innovation.” Everybody in the company is responsible for personal, team, and organization change and innovation. We can’t separate these responsibilities any more then we can separate quality improvement, customer service, or human resource management. Developing a staff group of “innocrats” is a sure-fire way to kill innovation and increase resistance to change.

13. How many experiments, pilots, and clumsy tries are currently underway in your organization? Depending on your Law of Averages, you will need many times more projects and pilots in the exploration and experimentation stage than you are hoping to eventually develop.

14. Here’s some very sound advice Peter Drucker has been giving us for at least three decades now, “every three years or so, the enterprise must put every single product, process, technology, market, distributive channel, not to mention every single staff activity on trial for its life. It must ask: Would we now go into this product, this market, this distributive channel, and this technology today? If the answer is, ‘No’, one does not respond with, ‘Let’s make another study’. One asks, ‘What do we have to do to stop wasting resources on this product, this market, this distributive channel, this staff activity?'”

15. It’s the very rare company that can make their organization more innovative by acquiring an entrepreneurial company. Within a few years, the acquired company’s culture has been “tamed” down to the same level of mediocre innovation as the purchasing organization. Innovation happens through transforming management systems/processes and leadership culture.

16. Establish a regular review process for yourself, your team, and your organization to reflect on the reasons for both your failures and successes. This is a fundamental and critical component of learning. Based on the input of everyone involved, some organizations produce substantial documents or booklets on “lessons learned” following a major new product, service, or business launch.

17. Set up an Innovation Slush Fund to provide seed money to champions and skunk works. Couple it with allowing your key operations people 10 – 15 percent of their time to work on projects that they feel have some high innovation potential. The only condition of getting the money or time is a periodic report (preferably voice mail, E-mail, videotape, or group presentation rather than a bureaucratic memo) on the key lessons learned. Circulate these reports widely.

18. Set up an internal “best practices and good tries” system, clearinghouse or network to continuously spread the learning about what works and doesn’t work across your organization. Many organizations are setting up electronic databases, intranet sites, learning and improvement coordination processes, active networks, and the like.

19. Put on regular product and service fairs that allow all areas of your company to show off their results, explain what they’re working on, and swap ideas. A giant two-day fair at a large house-wares manufacturer resulted in 2,000 ideas for new products.

20. Time to pull out that leadership mirror again. Do you have an experimenting mind set? What are some recent examples of personal routines or habits you changed?

21. A major factor in our team or organization’s level of innovation is our own rate of personal learning. We can’t build a team or organization into something different from us. Our personal rate of change, innovation, and learning sets the pace for everyone else.

Leverage the best internal and external ideas efficiently

22. Make sure that you and people throughout your organization spend lots of time in external benchmarking and “corporate tourism” mode, looking for good ideas to swipe. Many of the opportunities or problems you’re facing now are old hat to somebody somewhere. Learning from other people’s experiences — both the successes and the failures — can take years and millions of dollars off your learning curve.

23. Build strong personal, team, and organization measurements and feedback loops. If you don’t know how you’re doing, you can’t improve. If you want more innovation, set up measurements to chart your progress. Lack of feedback is one of the biggest contributors to learning disorders.

24. Develop strategic alliances and partnership with organizations providing complimentary products and services in your target market. If the fit is right, it can be a great way to extent your products and services, reduce your own development risk, and learn.

25. How do you deal with defeats, failures, and setbacks? In his work to understand why “the smartest people find it the hardest to learn,” Professor Chris Argyris concludes, “because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure. So whenever their single-loop learning strategies go wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism, and put the ‘blame’ on anyone and everyone but themselves. In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it most.”

26. Ensure that your reward and recognition processes encourage cooperation, open learning, and innovation across boundaries and departmental lines. If you’re not sure, ask.

27. The experimenting, piloting, and clumsy tries mind set must pervade all parts and areas of your organization. The includes human resource systems, training, administrative support services, management systems and processes, product and development, customer service, purchasing, supplier management, external partnerships, and so on.

28. Consider setting targets for innovation. 3M measures management performance and sets bonuses based upon the percentage of revenues that come from products and services that didn’t exist three years ago.

29. Put an intense focus on shortening your product and service development cycles. Radical improvement (aim for a ten times reduction) of these key processes will make your organization a leading innovator that leaves your competition choking on your dust. All your supporting management systems will have to be realigned to sustain this change.

30. Develop prototype and pilots in parallel. Avoid committing yourself to any one as long as you can without spreading your support to thin so that none can survive (a tricky paradox to manage). Once you’ve selected the approach or product you’re going to develop further into stages three and four, you might keep your options open with a few quiet pilots still bubbling in the background.

31. Appointed champions and assigned skunk works rarely work. They haven’t got the passion and commitment to beat the odds of an innovation surviving the bureaucracy, inertia, and threatened power bases. These people rise to the surface in environments that welcome and support them. Successful venture capitalists invest in people, not promising companies, products, or markets. A key criterion in deciding whether to support an innovation that is the passion of its champion.

32. Use many small mistakes to avoid the deadly big one. Experiment early and often on a small scale. You want a series of ten $50,000 learning experiences that notch your learning forward rather than one big $5 million flop.

33. If innovation is truly important to you, hire and promote unconventional thinkers, “boat rockers”, and passionate people who have a history of successfully bucking the system.

34. The flatter, more decentralized and team-based your organization is, the higher your levels of innovation will be. Head office and management need to serve the operational and improvement teams working to find better ways to produce products and enhance service. The more people feel they’re running their own show; the more they’ll act like entrepreneurial partners.

35. Exploring, searching, creating, learning, and innovating are critical on-going activities in finding the best routes to higher performance. This calls for leadership that sees beyond what is to what could be.

Jim Clemmer’s practical leadership & personal growth books, workshops, and team retreats have helped hundreds of thousands of people worldwide improve personal, team, and organizational performance. An international best-selling author, his latest book is Growing @ the Speed of Change. Visit for more information on his books, monthly newsletter, and leadership blog.