Managing Innovation

Innovation is creativity – applied.  So how do you manage the application of creativity?  From my experience, it’s something you can easily start but becomes very difficult to maintain. Perhaps innovation is meant to come and go – to rise and fall. Maybe innovation should be as fleeting as the latest management initiative or buzzword.  Or maybe it can be an integral and perpetual part of your organization’s cultural fabric – woven throughout.  It can be structural, planned and predictable. Here are several techniques which may help you manage innovation vs. hoping for innovation…

1. Find a ‘good’ mix of people. They should represent diverse experiences, viewpoints, skills, and perspectives.  Find people who value this mix and are comfortable working in a diverse ecosystem of thought.  Find people who can thrive in an environment of constantly growing new ideas. Many people can’t function in this type of environment and will drag down the whole team so having the right mix of people is critical.  If you want to have routine, stable and expected outcomes, you need routine, stable and expected people.  If you want new, risky, and unexpected outcomes… you get the idea. This mix of people will change over time with a steady stream of new talent.  This fluid pool of people is key to ensuring things don’t stagnate and people are comfortable with a constantly changing environment.

2. Provide a stimulating environment. The more inputs from external sources you can bring, the better.  Allow all sorts of material to educate, inspire and provoke.  And keep it moving so things don’t grow stale and insulated. You might want to consider being separate from the main organization if there’s a risk of smothering or if the main organization isn’t ready for innovation yet.  Ultimately, you’ll need to plant the seeds of innovation in the mother organization though or risk having your innovation initiative fade away over time. There are successful example of ‘skunkworks’ operations or mainstream approaches like 3M.  Either way, the work environment needs to support the exploration of new ideas and allow for the risk of failure.  Combine that with the right people (point 1) who aren’t afraid of trying new things – and you’re starting to get close…

3. Remove the fear factor.  Provide a safe haven for creativity and risk taking. Reward people for taking risks and challenging the norm.  Reward people even if they fail.  Reward people for trying so others are encouraged to try too.  Once the organization sees innovation happening and people having fun and being rewarded – the momentum should be on your side.  I loved Professor Sutton’s comment of ‘innovate AND die’ because so much of what you will work on – will die!

4. Provide some formal structure and process to the work in order to avoid total chaos and anarchy.  These can be things such as flatter organizational structures, lack of formal job titles and classifications, documented brainstorming techniques, product develop processes that allow of multiple alternatives through a stage/gate system, etc. Imagine a formal product development process that manages projects with timed gates with defined deliverables.  But between these gates, people are free to dream, design, and develop the possibilities!

5. Challenge the team. Push employees and yes, even creative types, until they start to push you.  A manager’s ideal role is to restrain and balance a creative, driven, and persistent team. Hope that you will be in a position where you are having to hold back the creative energy on your team.  Hope that you will need to channel and control this energy instead of having to ignite and accelerate it. 

Once you have provided the people, tools, environment, framework, and challenge, your biggest challenge will be to keep the process going.  It’s so easy to set things up and after a huge burst of energy, things slow down and implode if you’re not careful.  That’s why you need to ‘manage’ innovation.  Each of the items above needs to be monitored and adjusted.  This could mean adding new people, mixing up the teams, changing the environment, modfiying the process, feeding teams with new insights and knowledge, etc.

For more posts on Creativity and Innovation processes – click here.