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Take action: 7 ideas to create a culture of innovation

January 29, 2015 Article 3 min read
Jason Widman

Group of people collaboratingIdeas are fragile. If they aren’t shepherded along by leaders within an organization, they might suffocate under the weight of too much bureaucracy.

“Oftentimes, middle managers focus on increasing efficiency, and new ideas might compete against that—at least initially,” says ThoughtWorks CEO Xiao Guo. “Our job is to put our weight behind these fragile ideas until they get enough support. Otherwise, they might just wither away.”

When you say “no,” you’re effectively shutting down ideas and decreasing the likelihood that staff will come to you with new ones. 

If you’re like most organizations, you understand the importance of innovation but wonder how to do more of it. Here are a few tips from organizations who are successfully creating or maintaining a culture of innovation.

  1. Don’t be afraid to disrupt. “Disruptive” thinking displaces an established course of action. It often creates ground-breaking products that change existing industries or create new ones. A good example of a company unafraid to disrupt its industry is Henry Ford Health System. “We bought an HMO at a time when it was unheard of for a health system to own an insurance company,” says former Henry Ford Health System CEO Nancy Schlichting. “Then we built a hospital in a market we’d never been in against one of the industry’s most formidable competitors—and to make it entirely different, we hired a guy from Ritz Carlton to run it. These things are not quite normal, and we enjoy that disruption.”
  2. Say “yes.” When you say “no,” you’re effectively shutting down ideas and decreasing the likelihood that staff will come to you with new ones. “Yes” can be the most important word in a leader’s vocabulary. It encourages people to come forward with new ideas on a regular basis. Another way to encourage people to come forward: answer all of your emails. This demonstrates that you’re truly listening and responsive to ideas and suggestions.
  3. Don’t be afraid to think bigger. For Automatic Feed President and CFO Nathan Weaks, it was the recession that prompted the company to think bigger and become more innovative. “Our goal was always to focus on incremental improvements, but when the recession hit, we realized we needed to go beyond the little things and be far more aggressive. So in the middle of the worst time we’d ever had, we spent the most money on innovation, and it reinvigorated our whole organization.”
  4. Understand that “rewards” transcend monetary incentives. Should you reward innovation? That depends on what you mean by “reward.” Xiao believes that financial incentives suffocate other, purer, motivations--things like purpose, excellence, mastery, and autonomy. At ThoughtWorks, there’s no bonus structure—not even for salespeople. Rewards come in the form of praise or additional funding to help see ideas through.

    On the other hand, Nancy has had success via a competition where people present their ideas and demonstrate the ability to execute them. Teams have won as much as $10,000 for these ideas. She’s quick to point out, however, that everyone is motivated differently and that, often, those teams take that money and put it toward their next project because they were motivated to do more.
  5. Hire generalists vs. specialists. According to Xiao, specialists focus so narrowly that they often miss the bigger picture. “We hire people who have a broad domain of knowledge to make sense of an entire problem,” says Xiao. “This gives us a greater chance to connect the dots and come up with better solutions.”
  6. Collaborate. “Don’t be afraid to collaborate,” says Nathan. “Not just within your company but also with companies similar to you or that you have long histories with.” Nancy agrees, pointing out that it’s the interdisciplinary nature of work that often brings about new ideas, as people learn from each other. Xiao even goes so far as to tear down cubicles in favor of a long bench so that everyone sits around the same table, including customers, business analysts, developers, testers, and designers. “Then it becomes a dialogue,” he says. “That’s where the interdisciplinary, cross-pollination happens, where disruptive, creative thinking happens.”
  7. Know that innovation can happen anywhere. Every staff member can be an innovator, as innovation is fundamentally problem solving. Nancy tells the story of a laundry worker years ago who realized the organization was spending too much money on disposable pads in beds. She invented a pad that could be laundered, saving Henry Ford Health System millions of dollars over decades.

For more great tips, check out Plante Moran’s webinar, “Move Over Culture, Make Room for Innovation” featuring Nancy, Nathan, and Xiao.

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