If you’d like to do the same for your company, here are my six steps to take toward building your company into a sustained force for innovation.
1. Set up a transparent framework for reviewing proposed innovations. For an innovation culture to thrive, you’ll want to establish a framework to submit suggestions for innovation in an organized manner and have them reviewed—within a transparent system—for potential action. USAA, the insurance and financial services giant, has used such an approach to encourage and harvest nearly 1,000 patents based on employee suggestions, most of them from non-technical employees, including a staggering 25 from a single security guard employed at the company.
2. Build a blame-free culture and embrace your mistakes. Some of the best innovations come from serendipitous accidents rather than linear progression, and it’s essential to encourage your team to embrace these accidental discoveries and apparent missteps rather than disregard them because they were unintended. And you won’t even get potential (and potentially glorious) mistakes if your culture tamps down on possible errors and encourages timidity.
3. There are three general areas in which you should be encouraging innovation. Make sure everyone at your company is aware of all three. Only product innovation tends to get much press, so it’s important to make it clear that you’re looking for innovation in all three of the basic areas that are ripe for innovation in any organization:
· Product: what you sell or make
· Process: how you make it/how you sell it
· Business model: how your company is conceptualized and organized.
As Tomas Gorny, the co-founder and CEO of Nextiva, a business communications company in Scottsdale, Arizona, put it when I interviewed him previously, “Opportunity is everywhere. However: although ideas come from anywhere, these ideas may get discarded, or disregarded—rather than shared and built on—by even the smartest most innovative employees, until you get across to your team that opportunity can be found everywhere as well.”
4. Involve your customers (not only your employees) in innovation. This has a double value: The insights you get from customers that you’d never turn up within your company, and the buy-in you get from customers after they’ve involved themselves in helping you innovate.
Today’s customers enjoy the possibility of collaborating with businesses and brands as long as they believe that their say matters to the company in question. They don’t necessarily see a clear boundary between the customer and the brand, the customer and marketer, and the customer and service provider. Alex Castellarnau at Dropbox, the popular file transfer service, puts it this way: With today’s customers, “a new brand, service or product is only started by the company; it’s finished by the customers. Companies that understand this and figure out ways to engage in this co-creation relationship…will have an edge.”
5. Use technology to harvest unintentional and unsolicited customer and employee contributions. Technology such as CallMiner’s Eureka that facilitates automatic call recording and transcription can turn up essential insights from customers, prospects, and employees, ranging from product defects to feature requests, with zero effort required. (Professional relationships to companies in this article: This article’s author has done work for both CallMiner and Nextiva.)
6. Never consign anyone to the misery of staring down a blank page; provide innovation prompts instead.
Innovation is a slog when you’re staring down an oppressively blank sheet of paper, but you don’t have to go it alone. A wildly effective technique is to provide innovation prompts to get everyone kickstarted on the path to innovation. Start with these five, if you like. (If you’d like my complete list of 25 innovation prompts, email me at [email protected] and I’ll hook you up.)
• Try the opposite of your normal approach, or look for opportunities at the other end of the process. You’re trying to be the cheapest provider, but what would the premium version look like? Right now you sell diapers, but the diaper market is, uh, saturated. How about diaper disposal?
• Add a social element. The 1888 Hotel in Sydney could be just another hotel (a nice one, actually), but has transformed itself by turning itself into a “sharing destination” for Instagram enthusiasts, mapping out all the great Instagram locations (and even building a human-sized picture frame in its lobby). There are many other ways to socialize your offering that are more subtle than this one and can also improve the appeal of your product or service.
• Borrow a concept from nature. Caterpillars metamorphosing into butterflies, owls seeing at night, and don’t forget the humble mouse that became an essential adjunct to the graphic user interface (GUI).
• Pay attention to a neglected part of your offering. Think about how the legendary jeweler Tiffany & Co. took a mundane aspect of their product, the box, dyed it blue and made it essential to the Tiffany experience.
• Find a way to turn your product or service into a habit, or a ritual. Ronald McDonald House succeeded in creating a charitable donation ritual by putting the donation box right under the drive-in window.