Most organizations don’t do very well nurturing new ideas or new innovations.
There are a number of reasons for this, and they go far beyond the almost immediate “that won’t work”, “we tried that before” or other response that inevitably seems to come.
What they don’t have is either the culture for safe-to-fail experimentation (an essential element for discovery and refinement of ideas) or the mechanisms to enable it.
Take money, for example.
Few managers — except at the top — hold any discretionary funds these days.
Nurturing an idea may involve freeing up someone’s time for a little while (contractor or overtime costs), giving them access to a little technology (an unplanned computer), allowing them to attend a key conference or user group meeting (unplanned travel and entertainment expense).
A company I consulted to, a few years back, was located within 250 km (155 mi) of a major conference entirely applicable to their business, yet, with multiple streams of presentations going on less than 3 hours’ drive away, there was only enough budget to send one person. On a base budget in nine figures, this is a false economy.
Another is slack time.
Whenever I talk to clients and prospects about some of the behaviours of value-producing companies like Google, with its requirement that employees spend a significant portion of the work week not working on their job, but on new ideas, I am almost immediately told “forget that, we’re not an IT vendor”.
Oddly enough, almost all of them are quite happy with the performance of the technology vendor shares in their stock portfolio.
What I like to point out in return is that running flat out all the time actually wears the organization down.
People need a more variable pace: here we have to run at crisis speed, now we slow down.
Google’s requirement to sit and dream actually forces a break in the breakneck pace of building a Silicon Valley powerhouse.
Change is a third, necessary ingredient.
Involving people in other things that take them away from their regular roles for a short period of time is a good way to prepare the ground for innovation from them.
Involve them in an assignment: remote facility auditor, user group representative for your company (and be sure to send them to meetings), something useful that forces them to be away from their regular responsibilities for a few days at a time.
Don’t forget to use their absence as an opportunity to think about what doesn’t need to be done once they come back: having to deal with a key missing person helps highlight work that seems necessary but is not as important, easily delegated, etc.
Finally, it’s worth encouraging ideas.
Try some ideas from abroad: the Japanese, for instance, always go around the table from youngest (or newest) to most senior in asking for comments.
This allows ideas to surface that might otherwise never be brought forward.
It’s particularly important and productive to use these techniques if you have long-standing traditions about keeping staff and management separate, because encouraging ideas from the staff is much more difficult in these kinds of environments.
When you brainstorm, and put ideas up with the admonition not to criticize right away, do allow each person to vote on the idea they most want to do away with — then ask them to find a way to make it work to their satisfaction.
Don’t overlook, as well, having some awards to give out — one CEO I know well always has gourmet chocolates ready to hand out to reward risk taking in a meeting, or a good idea.
Most CEOs today are crying out for innovation — ways to create new profit opportunities.
These arise from a culture of many small innovations. Encouraging ideas wherever and whenever they appear is the soil out of which great new markets are created.