Creativity and innovation don’t have to cost a fortune in R&D. If you can create the type of culture in your business that values risk-taking, collaboration and creative problem solving, you’ll be closer to an innovation culture than a big corporate that throws money at it.
Here are five things you and your employees can start doing today to get the creative ball rolling and get innovation thinking on the agenda.
1. Break down silos
Do your tech people know your marketing people, or do they glide by each other with barely a nod of recognition? It’s not about everyone being bosom buddies, because that’s often not realistic nor even productive; but it is about the different parts of your business having some empathy with employees in other parts of the business and knowledge about what goes on. From here, collaboration becomes easier.
There are different ways you can achieve this cross-pollination. You might have semi-regular group get-togethers where employees can discuss their projects, or you might even look at instituting semi-formal secondment type situations, in which employees spend a week or so learning about another part of the business.
2. Look for outliers
Look for anomalies, exceptions and novelties in your data. Why was there a sudden rise in the sales of this product category for that month and then a sudden drop off again next month? Your business keeps receiving intermittent inquiries from an overseas country you don’t market or export to?
Atypical data findings can lead you to new markets or they might explain why some product lines work and others don’t. We’re gifted with oodles of data to plunder and pore over now, from Google Analytics through to CRM systems, so learn to read not only the basics that inform your everyday business, but find the kinks that might lead to new insights as well.
3. Encourage new ideas — even the crazy ones
Don’t shut your employees down. Not every idea is going to be brilliant or immediately workable, but what matters is that the ideas are percolating and being heard. When you create an atmosphere where everyone feels free to contribute and discuss ideas, you broaden the pool of creativity.
People often put too much pressure on themselves to come out with great ideas during designated brainstorming sessions when often it’s a matter of letting the ideas flow naturally. An innovation culture should be an incubator for constantly generated ideas, big and small, rather than a workplace where ideas are designated to a specific time and place — as anyone who has ever woken up at 3am with a crazy idea knows, creativity works to its own schedule.
4. Don’t punish mistakes, learn from them
Encouraging an innovation environment means you will make mistakes, and so will your employees. Of course you need to establish a framework that tries to limit the spillover damage from those mistakes, but most importantly, you need to incorporate review and analysis as part of that framework.
There are lots of reasons for why things can go wrong. Don’t scapegoat people; don’t humiliate them in front of others; and don’t let an honest mistake made in the right spirit discourage people from continuing to try new things.
This is not easy for managers and leaders because when things go wrong the buck ultimately stops with them. But the bigger benefits of an innovation culture can only come when the framework is set to deal with inevitable setbacks.
5. Stand on your desk
“I stand upon my desk to remind myself we must constantly look at things in a different way,” Robin Williams’ character, John Keating, told his students in a famous scene in Dead Poets Society. It doesn’t have to be a desk, but you and your employees should always be open to looking at things from a new perspective.
We’re encouraged to look at things from the customer’s point of view, which is a great starting point, but why stop there? Look for cross-cultural perspectives on your business and industry; talk to people outside your bubble.
Fi Bendall is chief executive of The Bendalls Group, a business that leads STRATEGY : ADVOCACY : MOBILE delivering the business acumen to drive effective positive results in a disruptive economy for the C-suite. Fi has recently won a Westpac/AFR 2015 100 Women of Influence award.