For some business leaders, innovation means developing entirely new solutions, products and technologies. For others, like me, innovation is an ongoing mindset and attitude.
Innovation should be the core of an organization, not just a side project with a beginning and an end. It should be open, two-way communication that leads to better results and engagement, whether it's business or social processes, operations or business models. Innovation is about people.
You can't mandate innovation. However, as more companies look from within to find and develop the next big thing, programs that turn employees into entrepreneurs play an increasingly bigger role in business. It's never been more imperative to explore how innovation can be taught and infused throughout the entire culture of an organization. Because we are talking about people and not products or technologies, employees should be an organization's biggest investment of time, training and resources. Today, you must focus on the innovator, not just the innovation.
So, how can you harness your own people to innovate and gain a competitive edge? Here are nine steps that work in organizations of all sizes and types.
1. Secure executive support.
For employees to take time away from their regular activities and focus on innovation, they need management support to deviate from the norm, form their own teams and ideate about their passions. Leaders from the C-suite down must actively reinforce innovation as a key corporate strategy by regularly communicating, participating in events and cultivating an environment where employees feel empowered to take risks without consequences. Executives who embrace the importance of employee innovation will touch every region, function and grade level.
2. Encourage transparent communications.
Organizational leaders should communicate their commitment to innovation widely through internal channels (intranet sites, social media, All Hands meetings, company newsletters, etc.). At the same time, employees should transparently communicate with their "higher ups," as well as with one another. Everyone must listen to each other with equal regard. Solicit candid feedback from employees through surveys and polls – what is and isn't working? Where do employees need more innovation support?
It's equally important to provide employees with the necessary channels (an online collaboration hub, for example) to exchange thoughts with leaders and recruit other colleagues to cross-pollinate ideas. In such environments, employee innovators can discuss challenges, brainstorm about their ventures and share best practices, making them better able to discover, co-develop and implement game-changing solutions that improve outcomes for customers, partners and the world.
3. Open innovation to everyone.
You don't need to be an engineer or researcher to be innovative. Some of the most impactful ideas can involve new business processes that create efficiencies and save money, a better way of communicating with customers that improves service, or a game-changing digital solution that disrupts the market, for instance. From executives to interns, great ideas can emerge from anyone inside an organization.
Build a culture that encourages respectful collaboration across all levels and departments. Innovation programs should no longer be the domain of certain departments, such as engineering, R&D or product development. Instead, organizations should encourage every employee to tap into their passions, nurture their inner entrepreneur, think outside their job function and co-develop their idea with a team that has a variety of disciplines.
4. Embrace inclusion and diversity.
As you break down silos and encourage employees from different departments to work together, keep in mind the importance of inclusion and diversity. Rarely do the best ideas arise when everyone on a team hails from the same background. Whether diversity means people of different races, genders, skill levels, ages, geographies and industries, or simply folks with different points of view, your employees have much more productive brainstorming sessions that lead to new ideas and solutions. And, those conversations are more impactful when everyone feels included, heard and valued.
5. Provide the right spaces and places.
Create or designate spaces to encourage new ways of thinking. Provide areas where employees can get outside with their colleagues during the work day or create free-flowing spaces to help get employees' creative juices moving. For example, at Cisco, we created a facility called the ThingQbator, which is essentially a maker space for Internet of Things (IoT) technologies. In the ThingQbator, employees have hands-on access to a wide range of sensors, technologies, tools and platforms that they can use to turn their ideas into working prototypes. We also provide winning venture teams with access to our global Innovation Centers where we co-develop digital solutions with customers and partners. Giving employees the tools, resources and spaces they need to bring their ideas to life has enabled us to ignite innovation companywide.
6. Make innovation fun with gamification.
Making innovation a sport or game of sorts brings employees out of their self-assigned boxes. By creating friendly competitions that incentivizes employees and teams for identifying and developing new ideas, you will attract more employees to the innovation party. Reward and recognize particularly innovative ideas with a monetary bonus, time off or public acknowledgement.
Another way to drive participation is to have employees comment or vote on their favorite ideas to get more people contributing to the discussion. In addition, innovation events such as hack-a-thons, challenges or demonstrations encourage innovators bring their ideas to life outside of their typical work environment. For all this hard work, consider implementing an "Innovator Award" to generate excitement and interest among employees by rewarding them for implementing innovative new processes or elevating ideas.
7. Emulate a startup.
Startups are often viewed as nimbler and more progressive than their corporate counterparts when it comes to innovation. Therefore, mirror the startup world with your innovation programs. For example, inspired by Adobe's Kickbox, our Innovate Everywhere Challenge (IEC) encourages all 72,000-plus employees worldwide to think like an entrepreneur by empowering participants and rewarding them to act on their own dreams. Just like in a startup environment, employees play the roles of founders, angel investors and mentors. Those with ideas they'd like to implement are the founders, while the angels are given virtual tokens or currency that they can use to "invest" in their favorite ideas. Throughout the program, mentors lend their advice and outside perspective to the founders to help make their ideas better.
8. Branch out into the community.
Innovation doesn't stop when your employees go home for the day. While it's important to invest in coaching, development and mentorship opportunities not only across the organization, it is equally important to do the same in the community. Encourage employees to attend workshops, lunch and learns and networking events to meet other local innovators. They may even help introduce you to a new partner that can accelerate your innovation efforts and bring additional ideas to the table. After all, innovation does not happen in a vacuum. You need a supporting cast of not only your own employees, but also a host of partners – customers, startups, developers, government representatives, researchers and academics from local universities. When diversified expertise comes together from both internal and external players to collaborate – and co-innovate – you can create more valuable innovations and outcomes.
9. Instill innovation within your workplace culture – every day.
Innovation is not a one-time effort. To make an entrepreneurial mindset an integral part of the organization, it's important for executives and managers to consistently and frequently reinforce key messages about how to embed innovation into their daily practices. You can also ask them questions about how to solve current problems in the workplace. For example, if they could improve communications, work flow processes or other aspects of the work day, what would it be, and how would they do so?
Your people are the key to success as an organization. Invest in them. Listen to them. Cultivate them. Believe in them. And, by all means, inspire them to be innovative. By empowering employees with the time, ways and means to come up with new ideas, as well as the opportunity to collaborate with each other and fully develop their ideas, you are ensuring a legacy of innovation in your organization and long-term relevance in a rapidly changing digital age.