By Dave Farber
Five years ago I wrote a piece for Forbes highlighting different strategies that big companies were using to build a culture of innovation. While that article proved to be quite popular, much has changed since then. Even before COVID-19 forced many to work remotely, workforces were already becoming highly decentralized.
Organizations were touting work-from-home opportunities as a new benefit, and larger companies were moving away from the single-headquarters tradition to ensure that they could access broad pools of talent around the world.
These trends have only intensified in recent months, and many organizations are expected to make at least some of their work-from-home options permanent. As employees continue working from home, organic opportunities for collaboration will be lost. The huddle rooms for quickly sharing ideas, the stocks of materials for designing prototypes, and the whiteboards for articulating and elaborating on preliminary concepts are all inaccessible to those who aren’t in the office.
Many of these tangible benefits of centralized workforces can be recreated fairly easily in a remote setting. Regular Zoom calls — including those with coworkers in other functions — can ensure that idea-sharing persists. Prototyping toolkits can be prepared and shipped to those who need them most often. It takes some work to get it right, but these tangible features can be replicated in a decentralized setting. The bigger challenge is creating the behind-the-scenes enablers that allow a culture of innovation to flourish, regardless of where people are working. To help with that, I offer five strategies that successful teams employ to ensure innovation becomes ingrained throughout an organization.
Communicate the FOCUS of your innovation efforts. As you try to build a culture of innovation at an organization, the worst possible outcome isn’t simply that your efforts have no impact. Poorly executed initiatives will actually hinder innovation at the organization and inhibit your ability to build that culture in the future. One of the biggest mistakes I see is that companies ask their employees to be generically innovative. They announce that employees can devote more time to innovation projects, and they set up an online platform through which employees can submit ideas. But without guidance, many employees who have great ideas avoid participating. Those who do submit ideas send in proposals that are unrelated to anyone’s priorities, so they go unanswered. The volume of unused ideas becomes massive, and the folks who submitted them become disheartened.
Organizations with a strong culture of innovation provide transparency about the company’s strategic priorities and what teams are prepared to work on. Maybe there are specific customer jobs to be done that the organization wants to satisfy in the near-term or consumer types that are an immediate focus. You’re probably not going to devote resources to projects that divert the organization from its focus, so be clear with employees about where you want help.
Additionally, it’s helpful to provide guidance on the different types of innovation that individuals can work on. Not everyone needs to focus on new products, so guide team members on how they can improve the customer experience or a process that more directly impacts their day-to-day work.
Show SUPPORT for innovation efforts that are making progress. Across all the companies I’ve worked with, it’s rare that I see employees who don’t have enough work to do. So if people think that senior leadership is only talking about innovation because it’s trendy, they’re not going to get involved. Similarly, if people aren’t getting recognized for their work on innovation projects — including those initiatives that generate key learnings but don’t become the next big thing — they’re going to get disheartened and move on.
When I worked with Cognizant — a digital services and consulting company — years ago, they truly celebrated innovation. In addition to all of the ongoing things that they did throughout the year, they would host massive annual events to celebrate innovation. Tens of thousands of employees from around the world would join in (in person or via video) to hear about innovation projects, and C-Suite executives would personally get involved. With support at the highest levels, mid-level managers no longer felt like they needed to choose between their day jobs and innovation, and it allowed for some truly unique projects to take hold.
Build a system to share knowledge and MANAGE innovation. With many people being remote, it’s unlikely that teams will know what everyone else is working on. At many of the larger companies I’ve worked with, that may well be the case even when everyone is co-located. Having a database of past and ongoing innovation projects will help teams understand what projects are already underway (to help avoid duplication), and it will also help them figure out who to turn to with questions that may have already been answered with other work. Beyond that, a big part of building a culture of innovation is having seasoned experts who can help unstick projects. These aren’t just people who have worked on successful innovation projects in the past, but rather those who have a toolkit of proven innovation strategies.
Ensure that team members feel SECURE about taking on the tough projects. People may already have concerns about their job security. Macro trends — things like COVID-19 and automation — are creating worries about downsizing. People have fewer check-ins with their managers when working remotely, so they find it more difficult to gauge how their bosses are perceiving their performance. Many managers didn’t like work-from-home options to begin with, and their direct reports are wary of focusing attention on anything other than their core responsibilities.
At the same time, any innovation that is worth pursuing has some degree of risk and uncertainty. If people feel like they’re going to lose their jobs by working on innovation projects, they’ll simply avoid them. Reassure team members that their day jobs will be secure even if they end up working on a failed innovation project. Innovation doesn’t have a 100% success rate. It relies on a portfolio plan that balances risk, fast test-and-learn cycles, and stage-gate processes to keep things in check. Infrastructure should be protecting the bottom line, not fear.
Provide the TOOLS and frameworks to make innovation repeatable. Innovation is not random or unplanned. By following a proven process you can give everyone the best chance for success while also ensuring that you’re able to learn from your successes and failures. Not everyone on the team is going to be an innovation expert, so it’s the organization’s responsibility to provide the tools that help them understand customer needs, evaluate the potential and likelihood of success of an idea, and develop plans for moving an idea forward.
This is also the perfect time to explore new ways of spreading customer-centricity throughout the organization. Not everyone has the time or inclination to wade through a dense PowerPoint presentation about what customers want. Several healthcare companies I’ve worked with now use immersive virtual simulations to test how team leaders can leverage innovation tools in challenging situations or see how consumers might react to specific choices. Podcasts and video montages can also be effective for bringing customer insights to life.
Having more remote workers doesn’t meant that you should abandon your plans to build a culture of innovation. Innovation is more important now than ever before. Instead, you need to make conscious choices to empower your teams and give them the tools they need to succeed.
Dave Farber is a strategy and innovation consultant at New Markets Advisors. He helps companies understand customer needs, build innovation capabilities, and develop plans for growth. He is a co-author of the award-winning book Jobs to be Done: A Roadmap for Customer-Centered Innovation.