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How do you build a culture of innovation?

By cecilia thirlway, Monday Apr 3, 2017

Innovation is a vital component of any successful organisation: in our current fast-paced and competitive world, standing still is not an option. But creating a culture of innovation in any organisation takes hard work, so how do you go about it?

Start with insight

As with almost any project, information is power. Bring together every piece of research, report and information you can lay your hands on to form a holistic view of your organisation.

Talk to as many people as possible. The people in your organisation who are at the coal face day in, day out often have a good idea of where the problems or opportunities lie, even if they don’t know how to approach them. Talk to people at every level, talk to your customers, partners and suppliers, and if possible, talk to the customers you’d like to have.

And don’t forget to include your leadership team (if you’re not one of them yourself). Strong communication with organisational leadership is crucial for two reasons. Firstly, they will give you an insight into the high level strategic goals of the organisation, which you need to guide and evaluate your innovation projects. Secondly, research from Accenture has shown that projects where senior leaders are engaged from the start are much more likely to succeed, as they can help clear roadblocks quickly and easily.

Use your people effectively

Your people are your biggest asset when it comes to innovation. They know your business better than anyone, and just because they haven’t come up with ideas in the past doesn’t mean they won’t surprise you. Include everyone at first, and those who really want to innovate will emerge.

Diversity in innovation teams has been shown to improve the range and quality of ideas produced – so mix it up. Build small, empowered teams that combine people from all sorts of different places, inside your organisation and out, to get fresh approaches. And don’t be scared to use different combinations for different stages. Experiment. Have fun.

While we’re on the subject of people, no one innovates while sitting at their desk doing the same things they do every day. Get people out of the office, out of their routine and get them doing things differently. Remember that different people approach creativity in different ways, so make sure there are opportunities for all types of approaches.

And don’t forget that we all have short attention spans. Make sure you have a mixture of quick wins and long-term projects in your innovation programme, so people don’t get bored waiting for results. Mix up online activity with offline initiatives such as hacks or jams.  And keep up the momentum with communications – people draw their own conclusions from silence.

Have a process – but embrace chaos

It’s good to have a process, but resist the temptation to over-structure things or you won’t get the truly creative ideas.

Some standard stages for innovation are problem framing – where you identify what the problem or challenge is you want to solve; ideation – where you generate as many ideas as possible without assessing them initially; assessment and prioritisation – in which you decide which ideas to focus on initially; and development, where you start moving the ideas towards being fully-fledged solutions.

Give each stage enough time: many people make the mistake of thinking they know exactly what the problem is, for example, and don’t explore it enough. How you define and frame the problem you’re tackling makes a huge difference to the kinds of solutions you might think up – for example, ‘Come up with a new type of book seven year old boys will love’ assumes that the solution to the problem will be a book. It might not. ‘How can we instil a love of reading in seven year old boys?’ still has the goal of motivating more seven year old boys to read, but is open to different ideas for getting there.

And finally, don’t be scared to stop. People can get territorial about their ideas; teams can fall victim to group-think; there are many ways in which ideas that should have been discarded can carry on being developed. Build in opportunities for independent evaluation with strict criteria to ensure that only the best ideas are chosen. Remember failure is an essential component of innovation.

A lot of the time, innovation won’t feel comfortable. It won’t feel certain, and it will be chaotic. But it could just be the difference between your business just surviving or really thriving.

Cecilia Thirlway is head of experience at Solverboard, an idea management platform founded in Bristol which brings people together into engaged, collaborative communities to solve specific challenges.

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