Innovation can be encouraged, but follow-through often blocked

Workers should be encouraged to constantly question what they do

Ask any business leader about the most sought-after attributes of their key talents and one word comes up time and again: innovation.

Whether to pull ahead of the pack or to ride out adverse economic conditions, organizations look upon the capacity to innovate as a competitive advantage. But can employees be trained to generate new ideas? And can an organization cultivate inventiveness in its workforce?

To ask whether people can be trained to improve their creativity is already the wrong way to look at a problem, said Ottawa-based author and consultant Frances Horibe.

“People having good ideas are a dime a dozen, really. I think, frankly, that people are dying to bring suggestions forward to organizations, but the problem is organizations don’t listen well.”

The way to grapple with the question of innovation, then, is to look at how organizations are making use of the ideas, “and that’s not a training function. That’s an organizational issue,” she said.

There are certainly ways to train workers to generate ideas, said Kim Ades of Toronto-based Upward Motion

They involve getting people to step outside a set of habits. Set up cross-functional meetings. Ask employees to go to events in different industries, Ades suggested.

“Changing your surroundings can get you to think differently,” said Ades. Workers should be encouraged to constantly question what they do, she added. “The question should always be: How can we be better?”

But organizations often make the mistake of thinking as long as they train people to be creative, “they don’t have to do any work in making it possible or easy for people to translate their ideas into things that are of value to the organization,” said Horibe.

There are a few reasons why organizations aren’t good at making use of peoples ideas. One is it’s inherently difficult to judge a truly innovative idea, Horibe noted. That’s why organizations should make sure they don’t rely on any one person to judge a given idea.

Shell’s GameChanger initiative, launched in 1996, allows anyone at the company to bring ideas to a panel of senior executives, circumventing existing programs and priorities. Winning ideas get business development funding, often within a matter of days, while remaining ideas go into a database that anyone within Shell can access.

At 3M, technical employees can apply for Genesis grants to help them develop personal ideas into prototypes. 3M also allows employees to shop an idea around to other managers if the idea is rejected by their own bosses. “I tell this to organizations, and they understand how revolutionary that is, because it throws out the window this notion that you own the time of the people who work for you,” said Horibe.

Another reason why organizations aren’t good at cultivating innovation is that good ideas tend to come from the so-called troublemakers.

“People in the organization who are constantly bringing up new ways to do things or who always disagree with decisions are good at focusing an organization, but they’re also very annoying,” Horibe said. Because managers are usually focused on getting things done, “they often have trouble managing people who are dissenters.”

This tension between innovation and efficiency is indeed difficult to manage, she said. Some organizations have tried removing the innovators from the corporate structure and putting them into skunkworks units — groups of inventors or developers working at top speed or top secrecy to bring out new technology or products. But this approach can often be tripped up by the “not invented here” mindset and fail to find champions throughout the organization, said Horibe.

Kitchener-based author and consultant Jim Clemmer said an environment that encourages innovation begins with simple things like managers remembering to update workers on what they’ve done with ideas found in suggestion boxes or employee surveys. If not, workers simply wouldn’t want to contribute ideas the next time around.

When Clemmer advises organizations on setting up the right environment for innovation, he looks for four elements. The first two elements are cultural: an attitude of inquiry and a willingness to experiment.

“An example would be a consumer products company that says, ‘We don’t always rely on research and development people. We’re going to invite our sales people to explore what the trends are.’ The entire organization would share this attitude of inquiry and learning,” he said.

The third step involves putting the idea under rigorous analysis, and the fourth is integrating the idea into the operation.

“It’s a combination of attitude and discipline. You need a process for acting on what you’re learning.”

'Innovation is everything'
By Lucie Lemmond

Douglas Barber, founder of Burlington, Ont.-based microchip maker Gennum Corporation, sees innovation as an essential ingredient to success — “and not just on the product and technology front. We have to be innovative about management, about accounting, about people development, about whatever it is we do,” he noted.

An offshoot of Westinghouse, Gennum has achieved a global presence through specializing in semi-conductors for the hearing aid industry. But to stay ahead of the game, the company not only has to benchmark itself constantly, it also has to keep imagining what it can be in five years’ time.

Thus, change is built into the company’s strategic planning. And although he’s seen time and again how innovative energy comes to the fore when people have their backs up against the wall, he doesn’t believe that people always have to be threatened in order to innovate. At Gennum, a six-month strategizing process is designed to “get everyone energized about where we need to change.”

At the initial stage of a strategic planning process, some 10 to 15 per cent of the company is involved “so it’s not like just a high-level kind of thing.” Once fleshed out and analyzed for business viability, the strategy is brought to individuals who then have to determine their own contribution to that action plan for change. And while the company does expect success, said Barber, people do have some latitude, especially as their job descriptions are flexible to start out with. Individuals are encouraged to bring their backgrounds, aptitudes and perspectives to their job.

“The objectives have to be agreed on, but you have some freedom in how you go about achieving those objectives.”

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