Is Innovation a Four Letter Word?

Is Innovation a four letter word where you work.  Are employees expected to do the same thing day in and day out with hardly a moment to stop to think about why they are doing something a particular way or whether there is a better more efficient way to do it?  Several months ago I wrote a blog titled: Too Busy to Think? (   If you spend your entire day doing everything you can just to get your job done and when you get home you just want to think about something else, anything else, how can you ever be creative and innovative.  Thomas Edison, probably the greatest inventor of our nation with over 1,093 patents, once said, “Genius is about 2% inspiration and 98% perspiration.”  But I assure you that the 98% perspiration did not come from continuing to do things the same old way.  Innovation needs to be part of your corporate plan, not an afterthought.

Does this mean that you should all ignore the daily tasks turning everyone loose to research and innovate?  No, of course not.  First, innovation is not for everyone.  Some people actually prefer coming into work each day knowing exactly what they will be doing and what management expects from them.  However, many employees can get really jazzed when given the opportunity to think outside of the box.

There is not one way to kick-start innovation at your organization or any organization for that matter.  Over the years, I worked at many places and have known people who have worked at far more.  Some were innovative, but many were not (and no longer exist. Hhmm… is there a correlation there?) Here are some examples.

Back when I lived in Pennsylvania, a friend worked at a local utility company and they were required to spend 2-4 hours each week learning something new.  If you were a manager or a manager-want-a-be, you could spend that time reading management books or listening to seminar tapes from their well stocked library on how to be a better manager.  If you wanted to learn a new computer language, resources in terms of books and equipment to ‘play’ on were also provided.  On the other hand, another company was so concerned about keeping their employees on task and never deviating from current project needs that when their market collapsed, the company had no direction, no plans, and eventually folded into bankruptcy.

Over the years, the approach that I found most interesting was in companies that formed innovation teams that included not just IT, but staff from other departments.  Most of the people in these teams were rotated in and out for some period of time ranging from a few months to a year.  However, some of the positions were permanent assignments for innovation leaders who facilitated each new group through their chosen innovation project.  The teams were encouraged to take a fresh look at a current problem.  Maybe a product was not selling well.  Maybe a software report took too long to run or was too hard to understand and printed across so many pages that no one wanted to look at it.  Whatever the issue, the team was guided by the innovation leaders to take a step back to first evaluate why the problem existed.  Then through focused research, they jointly developed a new approach to solve the problem.  Not only did this approach often solve problems with applications, systems, or business process issues, but it also helped unite teams across departments that whether they succeeded or not opened lines of dialog between previous operational silos.

And speaking of whether an innovation team succeeds or fails, the point is more important to get employees from different departments excited about working together to solve problems rather than fighting each other for control over their own solution to a problem.  This does not mean that you don’t care if the innovation teams fail.  Of course you would like all of the new ideas to be wildly successful.  But realistically, they will not.  Failure of an innovative approach should not be criticized or punished.  Without failures, nothing can ever change.  I’ve read stories that the head of MTV would fire employees who did not fail enough.  In fact, Caesars expects a 50% failure rate according to an article in a recent InformationWeek.  But it is not the failures that are the focus of why these companies operate the way they do.  Rather it is the successes that occur that would otherwise never have happened that are important.  Again thinking of Thomas Edison, not everything he ever did was wildly successful.  However, if you innovate enough, you will surely hit on enough successful ideas every now and then that make it all worthwhile.

An important key to this constant innovation approach is the ability to quickly recognize when something is not going to be successful and stop work on it as quickly as possible.  Never use the previously spent time and money as a reason to continue to pursue a potential innovation that does not continue to show promise.  I’ve heard companies say, “We can not stop now after spending millions of dollars on this or that initiative.  The board will have a fit.”  The truth is, what is done is in the past and nothing can change that.  Focus instead on the potential of the future and whether the work to get there still justifies the return or whether it is time to learn from what happend and to look for a different solution.

One closing story on this topic that you may already be familiar with.  While I don’t personally know anyone who works at Google, they have a reputation for new products and new services.  It seems to me like every couple of weeks they are introducing something new.  They keep up this pace by encouraging all of their engineers to spend 20% of their time on individual projects.  Many of these projects have been failures and have never even seen the light of day.  However, some of these products originally developed during employee’s 20% free time have become core to Google’s success like Gmail.

I hope you get the chance to innovate at your company.  At a time when the economy is pulling out of a recession, innovation can make or break a company.  Ask your manager if you can spend a little time innovating with other team members, maybe even from other departments on some new approaches that could help your company solve current problems or meet new needs.  It could give you a reason to want to go to work each day.


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