We live and work in a time when innovation and agility (or responsiveness?) are time-proven elements that can create competitive advantages for fast-movers. Despite this, many companies still tackle problems using painfully slow, outdated problem-solving techniques that do more to facilitate the status quo than they do to foster a culture of innovation. Why is that?
If you peel back the layers and look at how most companies are structured, you’ll find the traditional corporate landscape littered with organizational obstacles that impede the need for speed. How many meetings does it really take to solve a product-related issue? How many stakeholders are required to address a deficiency in the customer service approach? Do we need to involve stakeholders from every corner of the organization each time we need to shift gears? In many organizations, the operating answer to these questions is yes. And as a result, progress is painfully slow.
While most companies preach a progressive view of change and talk about their customer-centric culture, the reality is that many of those same companies still employ the traditional, siloed corporate structure that makes a truly responsive and innovative environment difficult, if not next to impossible. As a band-aid solution, many organizations have added a customer service layer in the form of roles like a “Relationship Manager” who is tasked with helping customers find the most relevant products, services and benefits from across the organization. We often see this approach in the financial services or healthcare industries, where even savvy customers are hard-pressed to navigate the complicated array of products and services with any degree of certainty.
So how is it that some companies seem to be able to shift gears and turn on a dime in order to capitalize on key market trends or emerging customer opportunities while other organizations can barely get things started before the opportunity to innovate has come and gone?
The answer is simple. The ability to innovate and change rapidly is no longer a nice-to-have. It’s a de facto requirement for any organization looking to lead the market. And the only way to enable that kind of forward-thinking, market-changing ability is to create a culture of innovation that breaks down internal barriers and seeks to solve challenges quickly, efficiently and with as little organizational friction as possible.
Wonder how you can start doing that? Here are five ways to start boosting your team’s ability to solve problems creatively and building a culture of innovation:
- Understand Your Team’s Innovation DNA: While it’s true that every company can benefit from an injection of innovation, it’s also true that there is no “one size fits all” approach to fostering and growing that kind of culture. Rolling up your sleeves and taking stock of the unique collection of talent, experiences and passions that your team members possess is step one.
- Crowd-Source Your Corporate Innovation: Think about the value of social media beyond the ability to share family vacation pictures that will embarrass your teenager. One of the handiest aspects of platforms like Facebook or Pinterest is the ability to connect with like-minded individuals who share your passions and can often provide expert-level advice and insights that help you tackle common challenges. Whether big or small, think about your organization as a social network with a tremendous amount of untapped knowledge and expertise just waiting to be discovered and applied in the most effective way. When confronted with a marketing problem, step outside the siloed mentality and look for insights from across your organization. Savvy companies recognize that market leadership will go to the organizations who can rapidly assemble a team of experts to solve any problem or challenge. Start building those cross-functional, inter-departmental teams today to begin fostering a culture that puts value on solutions rather than org charts.
- Connect the Collaboration Dots: A culture of innovation is one in which ideas, concepts and solutions flow freely and are easily shared across the organization. Technology can go a long way in facilitating this frictionless exchange and reducing the challenges associated with moving ideas through time and space. A classic example is the time and expense required to set-up a formal customer focus group in order to glean insights that can inform the next version of a product or service. Compare that traditional approach to the speed and simplicity of using a more forward-thinking approach that involves collecting customer feedback online while they are interacting with your products or services. The ability to solicit feedback directly from your customers when looking to identify opportunities for improvement is a virtual goldmine of innovation that only requires you to ask. By extension, connecting the cross-functional teams you created above using common technology and communication tools (i.e. Slack, GotoMeeting, Skype, etc.) will enable the kind of group brainstorming and collaboration that unleashes your innovation potential.
- Look for Cross-Trained Talent: A big part of greasing the wheels of change and amplifying the spirit of innovation involves finding individuals who are cross-trained in more than one discipline. For instance, a product engineer who also understands product marketing can help develop innovative communication strategies that bring key features to life in a way that resonates with target customers and improves sales. A product marketing manager with experience in engineering can, in turn, help that engineer understand why customers need a new product feature and write a technical specification that reduces time to market and eliminates costly development errors. Some companies have even gone so far as to formalize this cross-training requirement by requiring executives to spend as much as 40% of their time fostering and developing new skills that are outside the boundaries of their traditional job description.
- Embrace the Entrepreneurial Spirit: Many companies have found that hiring employees who possess a strong entrepreneurial outlook is the key to unlocking their organization’s innovation potential. Travel company Kayak prides itself on hiring only entrepreneurs to build a culture that encourages fast decision-making and rewards risk-taking, even when it fails. While not every company needs to take such an extreme approach, it’s clear that innovation doesn’t happen on its own. Find your organization’s level of comfort when it comes to making decisions quickly and taking risks and look for ways to push the boundaries. Giving your team members more leeway when it comes to making decisions is an excellent way to avoid letting an org chart slow down the pace of positive change.
As the sun begins to set on 2017, start thinking about your plan to foster innovation within your organization. Building, and more importantly sustaining, a culture of innovation is largely a function of creating an organizational structure that enables efficient, cross-functional decision-making. It means taking stock of your talent pool and understanding what unique knowledge, experiences and skills your team can bring to bear on any given problem. Creating a more innovative future can start today. By hiring top tier talent that can multi-task and solve problems quickly and efficiently. And by embracing a more entrepreneurial approach that empowers your team members to take charge and deliver results. In the words of the late, great Steve Jobs “Innovation is the only way to win.” So let’s get out there and start innovating!