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Turning Your Company Into An Innovation Engine

Innovation is one of those buzzwords that is here to stay. With relentless change becoming the status quo of our world today, it’s no wonder innovation is the element driving these unprecedented times. Companies are continually having to go back to the drawing board, to ensure they are forward-thinking.


Statistically, Fortune 500 companies these days are given an average lifespan of 15 years. You wouldn’t want yours to be the one that falls to the wayside, while others continue to reinvent and innovate. So the question is, how do you turn your company into an innovation engine?

In an art studio space near Downtown Pheonix, Arizona–Lorrie Vogel, former VP of Material Science and Innovation at Nike and CEO of ImagineNow–spoke on this very subject to a group of innovation hungry professionals at the Back End Innovation Conference.

She opens with the question, “Does your company need to be an innovation engine?”
Using lightning striking as an analogy for an excellent innovation idea turning successful—she asks whether we’d want lightning to strike more than once? The rhetorical answer is of course, yes. You want your company to be the generator of great innovations, but are there processes in place that will allow it to happen again or be replicated? Make it a point to pay attention to where these kinds of insights come from. How have they come about? Is it something that can be reproduced?

The top innovation coming out of companies today, exhibit a foundational belief built into the core of their companies that asks everyone to be innovators. To turn your company into an Innovation Engine, every single job description needs to have a focus on innovation. It’s not only the R&D teams these days that come up with the great innovations of our generation. Every person at all levels of a business can share ideas, and push boundaries together.

Creating a Culture of Innovation Through Trust

How exactly do you create a culture of innovation? The most important idea here is to foster a culture of trust. When ideas are disruptive, they likely will come off sounding stupid. They are usually the ideas that might seem silly or even dumb—but they often plant the seed for the amazing ones! A safe environment to share these ideas builds a zone of trust. This is invaluable to your business if you hope to create an innovation culture shift.

Creating a Culture of Fearlessness to Fail

In the innovation space—or any real-life scenario for that matter—expect to fail from time to time. Rather than walking on eggshells, staying in the safety net of what is known just to avoid a little failure—innovation asks you to do the very opposite. Innovation is about taking risks and embracing the possibility of failure.

Some of the most significant innovation leaders like Intuit Co-founder Scott Cooke or former Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent– celebrate failures with project funerals or monthly ‘idea kill’ meetings. Though, the bigger problem remains embedded in the fear leaders of creative institutions hold. The fear of mistakes and disappointment. Failure often holds negative associations.

Where success has traditionally been rewarded, failure is seen as a mark of the death. That annoying failure that follows you around and can even lead to jobs lost or lack of support in future projects.
The most important thing to remember is the value failing can hold. When you fail, you give room to learn from your mistakes.

Seek New Ideas and Empower Those Within Your Organization

The best ideas come from the most unlikely places. Within work cultures, a wide variation of perspective and insight is present within the collective workforce. Valuable insight isn’t only gifted to the “creative” teams—but an inherent capability of the all human beings.
Ensuring everyone in your business is looking at those key insights, is a great to start implementing a culture of innovation.

Inspire Your Team With New Ways of Thinking

As a leader, it’s important to inspire your teams! Create ways of invigorating a stale creative system by physically taking your teams out of their element. Allow them to attend trade shows or attend conferences. Visit retailers or bring in interesting speakers. You may be thinking, “How can I afford to run this across multiple departments?” If you don’t have that kind of capital to invest in your employees, the answer lies in getting creative with low budget ideas.
One great way Lorrie offered a simple, cost-effective way of inspiring her team at Nike–was to stream Ted Talks in a conference room—offering popcorn and drinks to incentivize attendance. She deepened the conversation by creating engagement by asking questions about what their favorite talk was or sending recommendation lists to teams on what top presentations to watch.

Another great way you can reward your teams and drive up inspiration as a leader—is to give monthly or annual innovation awards to celebrate their victories. Don’t shy away from mentoring individuals who show promise or need extra curation of an idea. This will help enable a more innovation-minded culture.

How to Create a Culture of Innovation?

Ways of creating a culture of innovation, are much more simplistic than you would assume.
If you are a leader or are looking to a leader to help cultivate this culture of innovation in your workplace, do you see any of the following initiatives present in your current work culture? If not, I’d highly recommend picking out the ideas that might work for your company, and begin implementing them.

1. Fostering of Cross-function Collaboration

It’s imperative that management at all levels aids in facilitating a collaboration across departments. When you can understand how other areas within the business function, this can lead to sparking collaborative ideas that solve the biggest and smallest of problems.

2. Open House

Try digitalizing projects happening across the business, and allow for ‘Open House’ periods throughout the year to engage with other areas of the business. This is an excellent way to get a better understanding of how different jobs function, the issues they face on a day-to-day and may bring to light processes that were previously misunderstood.

3. Brainstorm the Future

Inviting your teams to actively engage in brainstorming the future of the business twice a year, is one way to get creative thinking going. Taking out time to actively work towards innovation to build creative initiatives in a collaborative setting–is a great way to stay closely aligned with a culture of innovation.

Okay, so you’ve built this great arsenal of employees brimming with fresh ideas and consumer insight. What do you do next?

At Nike, Lorrie Vogel would often present her teams with three trends and threats that the business was currently facing. One example she gave was the potential threat of Urbanisation. If there wasn’t space for a large soccer field, would they need to design new games to combat the issue of space?
It challenged her teams to think outside of the box and generate ideas that solve real-world problems. By tuning into the micro-systems, therein lies the opportunity to innovate ahead of the curve.

Prioritizing the Right Innovations

Now equipped with new tools to help leaders create a culture of innovation, how do you begin to prioritize the multitudes of innovative ideas that will come through the door–ensuring the right ones are greenlit?

Lorrie shares her way of calculating the ‘size of the prize’—that is the ideas that will provide the most value to the business.
Phase 1: An interesting way of identifying what an idea can offer to the business is the use of a scoring system. This looks at things like Brand Value, Cost Savings, Revenue, and Environmental Value –appointing a number between 1-3 to each area—3 being the highest. You can always add other relevant areas that make sense to the business you operate within.
Phase 2: The next step is to take the ideas that scored the highest—and begin building a roadmap. Tag ideas to innovation categories they fit within to begin determining how long it will take to get to end product.
This can help your business to determine bad projects from the good. Is the idea one that could work? A good indication is one that’s market share seems strong. Keep in mind, a project that indicates strong market share doesn’t need to have proof it will work 100%– for it to be prioritized.

Innovation as an Employee Retention Tool

If all this great insight as to why you should create a culture of innovation, still leaves you skeptical as to the relevance it holds to your organizations—then listen carefully.

Millennials now make up the largest generation in our workforce. Research tells us they are individuals who genuinely value experiences. Though, all employee– regardless of the generation they fall into—have shown to be much happier and satisfied in their careers if they are given the opportunities to have a more engaging work experience.
Delegating opportunities to be innovation change agents can empower any employee.

So many legacy corporations look to Start-Ups with the assumption that the innovation occurring is operating at an extremely high level—and they aren’t wrong. The reason this appears to seem so skewed is that start-ups rely on everyone in the business because it’s all the resource they have. Once businesses begin to grow, they start to feel siloed. As soon as this happens, you begin to lock up colossal talent.

As leaders or future leaders—make sure you have manager’s that are genuinely open to change. Nothing is more growth-stunting than a manager who feels threatened by change or risk of others succeeding. Reward them for encouraging front-line employees to begin cultivating this culture of change through sharing creativity and innovative ideas, offering collaborative opportunity, and even stepping out of a fear-based place to present their ideas.

Be a part of creating change and innovation within your companies!