We've all heard how important it is to work on your business and in your business. In reality, that's easier said than done. Day-to-day tasks always seem to take priority because they keep your company going. Duties beyond the day in, day out usually end up just having to wait.
Innovation goals — those that help you work on your business and plan for its future – are equally important, even if they don't always get the same level of attention. "That's in the future," you might say. "I can do that strategic planning next week when things lighten up." But a week easily turns into a month, a month turns into a year, and so it goes.
Waiting until it's too late to innovate is a risky move. By aligning your innovation strategy with your business goals today, you set your company up for success tomorrow and beyond.
Challenges to innovation
Making innovation a major part of your culture is a lofty goal, but it's worth the effort. About 84% of companies say innovation is key to their ability to grow and succeed, but only 6% of those companies are happy with the performance of their innovation efforts. In other words, it's easier to give lip service to innovation but hard to make it a reality. True innovation not only requires you to pull your best and brightest talent away for a think tank, but it also requires you to get uncomfortable.
Consider the cases of Sears and J.C. Penney. Both were disrupted by newer retailers and didn't have a strong enough sense of innovation to put up a fight. Neither was able to pivot to an effective e-commerce model, and both quickly caved to competitors like Walmart and Amazon. Automobile companies face a similar scenario with Tesla's focus on creating electric, self-driving cars that are actually viable and affordable.
If you wait for the timing to be perfect, you'll always be waiting. Reward only comes when you take a risk and dive in. If you're willing to put in the work, a focus on innovation could take your company from good to great.
Tying together innovation and business processes
When innovation is ingrained in your culture, it becomes part of your brand. Always think about how even the most nitty-gritty, day-to-day tasks contribute to putting innovation at the center of everything you do. Follow these four steps to make this goal a reality:
1. Audit your current culture.
Changing the culture of a business isn't for the weak of heart. It's a long process that requires a lot of time and energy. To survive this change – and pull it off successfully – you have to start by understanding your current situation. Do an audit of your culture to take stock of what's already embedded. Where are people disengaged? Where are the gaps? What needs to change? Once you have that nailed down, discuss those findings with your leadership team while working together to build a plan.
When Omnicom Group acquired customer collaboration agency C Space, it didn't take long to realize there was a culture issue keeping the company from reaching its full potential. Leadership ordered a culture audit, which included talking to people in different departments about their biggest concerns; they drilled even deeper by asking what toxic culture problems were affecting their company and their work.
Since gathering those responses, C Space has gone through the (not always easy) process of improving company culture in a sustainable, healthy way. The culture committee initially adopted four basic principles to drive the company moving forward, but the intention behind those principles didn't show up in execution efforts. The company then pivoted by redefining those driving principles, and it has seen great results that have opened the door for employees to do their best work without focusing on the parts of culture that were holding everyone back.
2. Encourage structured risk-taking.
For your team members to feel empowered to innovate, they have to know that you support and encourage them to take risks. That doesn't mean you have to push everyone to go rogue and pursue every idea imaginable, but it does mean you need to set boundaries and expectations. Then, set your team free to create and pursue new ideas that fall within those boundaries. This is where the magic happens.
Amazon's "institutional yes" philosophy is a great example of what can happen when a company encourages smart risks. This approach sets the default answer to a new idea at yes instead of no, enabling people to feel bolder and more open to sharing the ideas they generate. By embracing this mindset, people feel comfortable sharing their best, most creative ideas, which inherently creates a culture in which innovation is encouraged rather than rejected.
3. Don't be shy about development.
People crave development and learning opportunities. Give employees the tools they need for education, events and development. They'll appreciate the chance to hone their professional skills, and you'll benefit from their ability to think strategically and anchor their innovative ideas in broader business goals – a win for everyone.
Etsy inherently understands this truth, and it has built a professional development community for the creators who use the e-commerce platform to sell their work. This community, called Etsy School, brings creators together to teach and learn an array of skills. Etsy's leaders say the school empowers employees at all levels to learn from each other to become better creators themselves, showing that the company is committed to personal and professional development.
4. Realize resources are a necessity.
You might have the most innovative team in the world, but all of that creativity would go to waste if your team members don't have the resources necessary to implement their ideas. Even if you don't have a huge innovation budget, at least come up with something you can offer your team. Provide the tools and resources people need to innovate and innovate well. This might involve idea management, or it might include providing funding for new projects. If you're hesitant to open the company pocketbook upfront, you could instead provide a small budget to let employees offer proof of concept, and then use that to acquire additional funding for the full-blown project moving forward.
If expending your budget isn't an immediate option, remember that the resources you offer employees could be as simple as carving out a few hours every week dedicated to innovation. Google famously encourages its employees to spend 20% of their time working on projects they think will benefit the company the most. Having a core policy devoted to pushing employees to innovate and think strategically about their creative ideas is a relatively simple way any company can devote time and resources to innovation.
The longer you wait to create a culture of innovation, the higher the opportunity cost. Five years from now, your company might be doing fine, but it could be more than fine – incredible even – if innovation drives your business objectives.
Start mapping out what you need to do to embed innovation into everything your company does today. Don't wait to take the risk.