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7 ways to create an innovation-friendly atmosphere at work

The cry to innovate is heard around the world. Knowing the secrets behind innovation will help you and your company answer that call.

Innovation is the driving force in all economies. Indeed, the innovative power of disruptors is shattering industries worldwide. However, knowing you need to innovate and actually doing it are two different things. The good news is that encouraging and nurturing innovation isn’t as difficult a task as you might think.

“Myths abound about the ‘magic’ of innovation being only available to a select few,” says Ann Herrmann-Nehdi, CEO of Herrmann International, an innovation and creative thinking consultancy. “But our research on the brain and thinking shows that everyone has access to creative and innovative thinking modes; they just don't know how to tap into it.”

Rev your creative powers

You and your team can start by ditching the notion that there are creative and noncreative people. Self-doubt only inhibits your ability to create and innovate.

“Key to fostering innovation is to ensure it is not perceived as an ivory tower. Instead, make innovation both accessible and relevant to all,” advises Ken Moore, former head of research, development, innovation and earning at Citi Ireland and now executive vice president and head of Mastercard Labs at Mastercard. Moore says Citi goes out of its way to recognize that everyone in the company has a role in innovation, “whether that’s a product manager innovating for their particular product in line with customer feedback or an innovation portfolio manager looking at new and emerging opportunity spaces.”

It’s important to have several innovative efforts working simultaneously throughout the company, rather than just appointing a select few to sit around and think of one or two big ideas. Many smaller efforts move your company further than a single giant one. However, expect the change in your business culture to take some time; success is unlikely to come overnight.

Brainstorming is the most overused and underperforming tool in business.

Drew Boydexecutive director of Master of Science in Marketing, University of Cincinnati

“Recognize that implementing innovation and specifically open innovation is a journey. It can take more than a year to get started and shift a company’s mindset,” says Susan Harman, former manager of open innovation at Intuit and currently director of the ShareFile small business product Line at Citrix.

Jump-start the innovation process

The good news is that you don’t have to wait a whole year to begin innovating, even though it may take a year or more to get your organization in position to constantly and consistently innovate. Remember, the innovation process is not an all-or-nothing exercise. Start with collaboration around one or two known problem areas or in customer-facing areas. In other words, begin with the opportunities you see from where you’re standing right now.

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“The most innovative products emerge from inside the box, not outside of it,” says Drew Boyd, an assistant professor of marketing and innovation at the University of Cincinnati and author of Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results.

“Many innovative solutions are right near the problem at hand, and they take unique aspects of the problem to use as the basis for the solution,” says Boyd. “Parts of the problem become the solution.”

Brain woks

While everyone is creative, no two creative thinkers think alike. Herrmann-Nehdi categorizes thinking into four quadrants of the brain: analytical, organizational, strategic, and interpersonal. Ultimately, all types play a role in the innovation process even though individuals may use one area more often than the others.

“That’s why we recommend bringing together people with all thinking preferences—not just the traditional ‘creative types’—to innovation teams, along with at least one ‘whole brained’ individual who can manage the process,” she says. “Involving all four quadrants is the best way to spur creativity, generate the most ideas, and manage the ongoing implementation of ideas.”

While the innovation process can be taught, nothing can replace the value of adding different kinds of thinkers to the mix. Ultimately, visions arise from the collective. However, innovation can also spring from a single individual.

“Brainstorming is the most overused and underperforming tool in business today,” says Boyd. “Study after study has shown that this 60-year-old process is less effective than individuals thinking of ideas on their own.”

By allowing both individuals and groups to work on innovation, a company vastly increases its opportunities and chances of success. For this to happen on an appreciable scale, the company’s culture must adapt to support the process.

“It needs to be OK to be different, to think different, and to accept differences from other persons. For example, conflict management, amongst others, is important,” says Inge de Dreu, an independent consultant on creativity and innovation and an instructor at Udemy. “Mistakes enable learning. If people don't feel safe proposing their ideas, they won't.”

How to innovate in your business

Boyd recommends that you look for patterns among everything around you—inside and outside of the company—and let those patterns define the needed innovation.

“Surprisingly, a majority of new and innovative products and services can be explained by only five patterns,” explains Boyd. “Think of these patterns as the voice of the product. By extracting these patterns, we can innovate anything: products, services, process, and business models."

In regards to specific steps a company can take to foster innovation, there is no set formula. However, there are steps companies can take to ensure the innovation process begins and continues. Moore recommends these actions:

First define innovation

Innovation means different things to different people. “At Citi, we made a distinction between core innovation in existing products and services, adjacent innovation, and disruptive innovation," Moore says. "We managed and supported each of these differently.” 

Fostering innovation starts with balancing both commercial and creative mindsets within a gated process and instilling a disciplined approach to failing smart.

For innovation to be successful, it needs to be sustainable and aligned to the direction and boundaries imposed by the organization.

  • Innovation is best measured like any other business—by profit and loss. In practice, this is hard to achieve in complex organizations.
  • Financial services companies can learn from the models and structures in use in other areas, such as high-tech or pharmaceutical industries.
  • Leverage academia and research institutes to provide a cost-effective mechanism for conducting fundamental research and producing unique insights.
  • Bring your customers to the heart of everything you do.

Now go do it

  • Empower people and embed formal innovation training into the core curriculum of leaders and emerging talent.
  • In complex organizations, developing a common approach and language for innovation is key to enabling collaboration across different business units.
  • Create an entrepreneurial spirit within individuals to encourage diverse views and thinking. Consciously hire individuals from diverse backgrounds to complement your existing strengths.
  • Deploy collaboration and ideation tools that allow the organization to leverage, recognize, and reward the ideas of individuals at all levels within the organization.
  • Widely publicize and communicate the successes of individuals and teams to appeal to the natural tendency toward competition that exists in all organizations.
  • What you don’t measure you don’t care about. Assess how the organization and individuals contribute to innovation at all levels. Recognize those who contribute most.
  • Develop a set of core behaviors that can be contextualized and rolled out to the organization and that underpin your innovation efforts. “At Citi, we have six core behaviors in which we actively train our resources,” says Moore.

Now you know the secrets behind the innovation process. All that’s left is to go do it!

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.