Before being acquired by Facebook for US$1 billion, Instagram was just another photo-sharing app operating with insignificant infrastructure and a dozen employees. With the ever-increasing potential of modern technology, the next billion-dollar business could start from the comfort of someone’s home. To stay on top, established organisations need to stimulate innovation… and that’s our topic today.

Most established organisations try to avoid failure by taking safe bets. Even the right mindset to recognize and encourage innovation is not something that’s usually taught in a business school – a reason why most senior executives find it difficult to harness the power of innovation in the workplace. The process of disruptive innovation requires the capacity to embrace failure, take risky small bets, and quickly learn if something doesn’t work.

Even if the ultimate purpose of innovation is usually clear (creating new products, earning better profits or increasing market value), the real problem lies when organisations try to formulate a culture to create the right conditions for innovation. It may seem like an oxymoron, but implementing innovation is a continuous challenge wherein you need to customize the initiative to suit your specific needs. It’s an ongoing job that needs stimulation at all times. With that in mind, here’s a quick look at five market-tested ways of encouraging innovation by changing existing management practices. The goal is to significantly improve the delivery of breakthrough innovation while increasing the chances of success (without reinventing the wheel!)

Reform and decentralise decision-making process to encourage innovation

Unfortunately, even the most established organisations find it difficult to extend strong executive support for innovation. Fact is, taking timely decisions on innovative ideas should never take a backseat. There have to be serious implementation plans in place. In fact, the speed in decision-making processes is an area where small organisations beat the bigger ones, especially when it comes to innovation performance.

If there are many ideas on the table, “someone” must be empowered to take timely decisions to pick the ideas that might work best. Since most innovative ideas and programs require months to develop before they start reaping real benefits, you need a person who takes the difficult calls, with less focus on short-term results. In the absence of that “one authority” to make tough decisions, the process of collaboration becomes cluttered, which results in loss of productivity across the spectrum.

Thus, it is noticed that a concrete plan that lays down the specifics for a swift decision-making process will allow more room for flexibility and a higher chance for survival of top innovative ideas. In a way, the bigger organisation has to think like a small startup – appoint top executives, stay less bureaucratic, execute plans quickly, with much faster decision-making capabilities.

Pro tip – Hire or promote a top professional to be the independent chief innovation officer – someone with the ability to take hard decisions and manage the entire process of innovation.

Better communication is a vital key to innovation

When it comes to stimulating innovation, encouraging a fluid flow for information, ideas, and insights throughout the organisation is an important factor…. and that’s not rocket science. Organisations that position their processes to take advantage of knowledge generated from every nook and corner are significantly more innovative than their competitors. On the contrary, if the employees, especially the middle managers, feel their ideas are not reflected in management decisions, there is a sense of pessimism and negativity all around.

Without a precise mechanism in place, fresh ideas and insights might not reach the right stakeholder. As a result, the participating employees might feel a level of detachment, which hurts productivity. Employees should feel like they’re being heard at all times. So if you’re open enough to welcome ideas from middle managers and employees, make sure those ideas are being considered and employees are always kept in the loop (a bidirectional relationship).

It all comes down to adopting the culture wherein the flow of information and ideas is bidirectional. Cross-disciplinary communication with the transparent bidirectional flow of information encourages employees to use their freedom and make some significant breakthroughs. Organisations which promote a free flow of information between employees and management are always capable of making timely and better-informed decisions.

Consider GOJO Industries, a well-known manufacturer of hand hygiene and skincare products. Senior executives at GOJO promote a two-way flow of information between management and employees while providing venues for sharing new ideas, even before they’re fully baked. It works like a charm.

Pro tip – Let there be a healthy flow of ideas between top management and employees. Build on the best-suited communication channels to create an idea funnel where everyone is allowed to submit and follow the ideas they bring on the table. Let it be a two-way process that encourages ideation and quick implementation, which is the best way to encourage innovation in the workplace.

Reward for creativity, and you get innovation as a by-product

While it’s imperative to make sure that you reward the team members who deliver innovative ideas, you must never ignore the employees who were trying to be innovative and not yet achieved success. Be inclusive and appreciate their effort so that every team member is encouraged to try “one more time.” In fact, by celebrating successes and failures, you can transform these milestones into valuable insights that propel your business forward.

By creating such an environment, you create a culture of “idea sharing” that each employee feels engaged in. Eventually, this will help you nurture future superstars who might lead you to breakthroughs that are catalytic in nature. When you are trying to create new rewards programs, take a close look at how the company’s existing innovation management processes are working and what exactly can you improve. For instance, what is the decision-making criteria for incentives, how ideas are evaluated, how are they communicated, and to whom?

After taking a hard look at the entire process and documenting the details, you get a great opportunity to revitalize the rewards program and improving your idea funnel along the way. Make sure you include everyone’s interest in the process – be it the chief innovation officer, top management, or an ordinary participant. While rewarding innovation also keep in mind the general environment. For example, if you’re one of those organisations that are new to innovation as a culture, you should first reward for quantity rather than quality.

The first goal should be to encourage innovation and ensure that employees get used to submitting a higher number of innovative ideas. A detailed point-based system in which points are rewarded for each idea passed to the evaluation stage. For instance, with Idea Drop, users get points for submitting the best ideas, collaborating with others, or simply logging in. It is a highly effective system which makes it easy to draw unique ideas in an effortless, fast, and efficient way.

With time, the points system can be gradually shifted to tangible incentives like bonus, shares, additional vacation time, or gifts, etc. The reward system should ideally appeal to most, if not all..

Pro tip – Make the incentive programs fun, enticing, and tangible for your employees while minimizing the old stereotypes of cash and merchandise. It’s far better to create innovative incentives like more vacation time, winning a pass to work from home, extended weeks off, etc.

Choose a strategic planning framework that suits your needs

Winning organisations are well aware of the fact that for an innovation strategy to be effective, it needs to be integrated into the long-term goals and aspirations. Ideally, innovation should be deeply glued into the normal pattern of business, including the strategic direction of targets, budgets, etc. The focus should be on creating an encouraging environment, so there is a better use of existing talent. However, there would be times when things don’t work. Even the tested strategies need restructuring. For the effective implementation of any strategic plan, the management should be aware and ready to modify (or back out when something is not working).

Also, it’s recommended to try out distinct techniques since there is no real harm, and the process may lead to a better outcome. Let’s say you’re using OGSM strategic planning framework to create a solid plan to survive in a highly competitive market. Ideally, the output of the OGSM framework is supposed to be clear, simple, with a ONE PAGE strategic plan. However, at times, the framework is a little behind the cue ball and requires “too much” planning in fast-paced environments.

You can also try the Ansoff matrix to work on new products for new markets or new markets for old products. Again, while the Ansoff matrix is known to discover untapped markets, it is usually unable to consider most external and internal factors that affect increased/diversified sales. It can be hard to know which framework is right. Recognizing the right framework depends upon the actual performance, workforce capability, scope of innovation, and the potential of growth in the market.

Pro tip – Choose a strategic framework which is best suited for innovation so that you can operate even in the markets with extreme saturation and can use the existing talent pool within your organisation.

Better time management leads to quality innovation

With increased competition, most organisations are wholly fixated with time, speed, efficiency, and productivity. That makes sense as empowering your employees for innovation is not easy if their time is stuffed with unimportant tasks that have no actual relevance on the results.

If an organisation is serious about innovation, they need to assess whether their employees can find extra time to think about how to improve the actual processes and products. For instance, there is no point scheduling one hour every week as “innovation time” if your employees are stuck on a hundred other things. You can always encourage innovation, but can’t force it on your employees. This is exactly where senior managers are expected to understand the pulse of their respective teams and don’t make innovation as another “tick box” activity. There should be a focus on long-term gains.

For instance, flexible working hours have often proved to increase employee satisfaction, morale, and overall engagement with the organisation. In fact, organisations that are not flexible usually end up unhappy with burnt-out employees who don’t have any drive to innovate. The senior executives eventually pay the high cost in terms of stagnant processes, squandered resources, and even loss of business in some cases. Time management for your employees is nothing but evaluating the true value of each task in a way that helps to complete their targets in time and leaving enough motivation for fresh ideas to take birth.

Pro Tip – It is never easy to change a project timeline to give more time to innovation. However, when managers start focusing on streamlining the employee calendars to make space for innovation, they begin experiencing the change right away.

Concluding thoughts

Much has been written about the arrival of Airbnb, and the consequences on the hotel industry. However, Hilton CMO Geraldine Calpin knows the importance of innovation as per the changing needs and expectations of modern customers.

When she came on board, her first move was to bring all departments together and bring in a single focus on the end-user journey. As a result, Hilton Hotels were able to encourage innovation, and the teams finally discovered a revolutionary feature like digital check-in. It is something that saves so much time for the guests because they don’t have to check-in at the reception counter physically. Focusing on customer journey also lead them to the concept of the digital key, which is a highly practical step that saves a lot of trouble for the end-user.

Next, they are focusing on voice search and making sure that Hilton Hotels is the first one to introduce something new based on voice search for their guests. That’s how they stay one step ahead of all their competitors. While Airbnb offers other positive experiences for the guest, the continuous innovations at Hilton help to create and deliver differentiated services and experiences for their guests…. and it all happens because they believe in innovation. That’s how you make innovation a serious competitive advantage. This constant pursuit to support innovation is easily recognized by most employees, which becomes an inspiring reason for them to jump out of bed in the morning and rush to work.

In the end, it’s also important to remember that only stimulating your employees by creating a process is not the end game. The output of that innovation process is actually what’s important (something that successful brands like Hilton do it well). So the process of ideation needs to be paired with execution and implementation, with a deep focus on the final result. With that final thought, we hope your journey towards innovation is rich and rewarding.

About the author

Owen Hunnam is a serial entrepreneur and a CEO at Idea Drop, Owen has an extensive experience and knowledge in digital technology; business development and relationship management; agile innovation management and embedding innovation culture within large organisations. Owen is working with global F500 companies and helps them to harness the collective intelligence of their employees.



Twitter @thisisideadrop

Featured image via Unsplash.