This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Smart Business Philadelphia magazine.
Far too often, companies hope for an "aha" moment — viewing innovation as a sort of magical event that occurs out of thin air. However, in reality, innovation is often the result of a long, costly and painstaking process.
Additionally, if a company relegates innovation to its research and development department and wonders why R&D is not having the success hoped for, that company is not alone. This is a common mistake, and it can be made worse if R&D has little direct interaction with customers or prospects.
What can a company do if it has committed time and energy, but has not seen results?
When companies stagnate, it is often the result of tunnel vision. Sometimes it can be difficult to approach a common problem from a new perspective. One way to combat this is to engage team members from unrelated functions or lines of business. By doing this, the teams will not be as heavily influenced by current habits and are more likely to achieve breakthroughs.
If a company does not have multiple lines of businesses or functions from which to draw, it should consider bringing in an outsider, and not shy away from one who knows nothing about the industry.
Engaging someone who is unencumbered by longstanding assumptions can lead to game-changing insights.
How can companies engage other employees in the process?
For those who really want to create a culture that fosters innovation, innovation cannot be a part-time job.
Innovation takes time and energy. If employees are always up to their eyeballs with other responsibilities, a company will most likely fail. To be successful, an organization needs to provide time and space for employees to focus on products, services or processes. This may mean allowing key employees to spend as much as 10 to 15 percent of their time trying to come up with the next big idea.
Are there other ways to overcome stagnation?
Many times, innovation simply comes from observing something in a seemingly unrelated field and connecting or associating that observation with the problem a company is trying to solve. As a result, sometimes the best way to solve a problem is simply to leave.
Taking a vacation or getting away not only recharges team members, but also provides them with the chance to see things — products, services, or processes in other industries or geographies that could result in breakthroughs in the industry. Additionally, leaving the confines of the office to get out and observe customers in action can help personnel challenge assumptions and generate new ideas.
What other approaches stifle innovation?
Those companies struggling with a lack of quantity or quality of new ideas, should consider how the organization reacts to failure. If failure typically results in negative outcomes — poor performance evaluations, lower raises, embarrassment or dismissal — culture may be the problem.
To create an environment where employees feel safe sticking their necks out, a company should celebrate the effort and accept the fact that for every 10 ideas that fail, one idea may be the groundbreaking idea that was sought.
Are young people better at innovation?
The press tends to celebrate youthful innovators, so it's assumed the best innovators are young. However, if that were the case, why is the average age of a Nobel Prize Laureate well over 50?
While industries such as technology tend to have many more young disruptors, the skills necessary for innovation in many other areas come from years of experience and observation. So if a company's goal is to create breakthroughs, make sure it includes some people with gray — or no — hair. ●