CONTINUOUS INNOVATION CULTURE

9 April 2018 -- Building a culture of continuous innovation holds significant rewards for enterprises that need to address constantly changing market environments and new competitive landscapes and also want to unleash the untapped potential of their broader employee base. While many companies have incentive programs for inventions and improvement proposals, their impact is often quite limited. In the following article, we discuss some considerations and practices that are based on experience with large organizations in the technology industry that have proven successful over the years.

It goes without saying that a culture of innovation needs visible support from the top of the business, and innovation needs to be directly tied to the mission and values of the enterprise. This emphasizes that it concerns all employees, not just those with a specific job title. IBM’s assertion of "innovation that matters" as one of three company values is one successful example.

It is also important that such a value statement is translated into impactful actions that employees can take related to their ongoing work and to the company’s strategic direction. In this way, broad groups of employees can become active participants in a transformation, gaining a sense of empowerment. A few examples:

Themed hackathons using strategic technologies or company-wide initiatives to solicit proposals addressing strategic areas create opportunities for the entire population to participate. They should be team-based and involve a well-defined process of proposal generation and decision making. For instance, soliciting proposals for artificial intelligence (AI) infused solutions can bring together teams that do not normally deal with client-facing solutions but are passionate about the potential role of AI in their company’s offerings. These initiatives are especially effective when coupled with mentoring on how to apply methodologies such as design thinking or agile practices and especially if they contain an element of gamification, like community voting. Rewards for winners should be geared towards allocating resources for implementation of the best proposals, and all participants should receive some form of recognition. If these events are not one-offs but part of a continuous drumbeat, they have been shown to significantly increase employee engagement.

Apart from specific time-boxed initiatives, establishing an innovation board to solicit proposals from a broad practitioner community on a regular basis has proven to be effective. It is important to set expectations and to provide mentoring to teams and individuals during the proposal process. Giving clear directions about the kind of proposals expected and specific areas of focus is also an opportunity for the leadership team to communicate about an organization’s priorities. This is especially important during major transformations, like moving to cloud or shifting towards a platform-based approach to services.

As part of the agile transformation, it is vital to encourage teams to share best practices by establishing a reward system for agile process transformation. This has been shown to increase awareness of the agile initiative and also to accelerate adoption of agile practices by essentially letting teams become agile champions through promoting their own successes.

Many companies have programs that award patents but consider also rewarding publications in external journals, submissions to conferences or contributions to open source. In fact, making sure that a company’s innovators are connected to industry communities will increase exposure to new ideas and also help the enterprise avoid insular thinking.

Building communities of innovation champions around specific roles, like "master inventors" or "agile champions," with empowerment and expectations on role model behaviour can strengthen grassroots engagement, increase skills level and lower the perceived barrier to entry for innovation for junior practitioners.

Innovation programs become more impactful if they make use of unifying structures. Aside from visible senior executive support and consistent messaging, the following elements have proven effective.

  • Innovation in its various forms needs to be an expected behaviour of technical leaders who serve as role models for the broader technical community. This requires rewards and recognition for innovation to be integrated into the technical career framework.
  • An infrastructure for sharing assets -- both knowledge and code -- is needed to foster reuse. The underlying knowledge architecture has to be extensible and needs to be supported by tools for knowledge creation and curation as well as asset rating.
  • Platform-based innovation avoids duplication of efforts and incompatibility of assets, fostering reuse and innovation that can build on and enhance previous work.
  • A disciplined approach to rigorously testing innovation and quickly shutting down unsuccessful efforts is essential.

Transforming innovation from an initiative to “the way we do things" -- in other words, to a deeply ingrained culture -- requires continuous focus from leadership, deep community engagement from potential innovators and a framework that turns individual good ideas into a sustained competitive advantage.

With thanks to Kristof Kloekner.

GALBRAITH & CO.

Galbraith & Company is a professional advisory firm that provides advice, strategy, programs and services that focus specifically on productivity and innovation across the digital economy.

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