Developing a Realistic Innovation Strategy

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If innovation could be summed up in ten simple steps every organization would already be doing it. That is not the case, although many articles will try to explain it that way. This is not one of them. Innovation is a complex topic and contrary to popular belief, is not the undertaking of a single individual. Innovation is not some mysterious quality that only a gifted few have. We are all naturally innovative if given the opportunity.

Innovation broken down to its simplest definition is the introduction of new ways to handle situations or problems that provide a better result than the current methods. This can be as simple as taking an unnecessary step out of an everyday process or as complex as creating a new product or service that enhances the lives of everyone it touches.

The question is not “how do we be innovative” but instead “how can we be more innovative?” Innovation is already taking place in every organization but the level of innovation varies from organization to organization. The beauty is that there is no such thing as too much innovation, therefore, every organization can benefit by being more innovative.

The question then becomes, how do we be more innovative? The answer lies in an innovation strategy. There are four major components to an innovation strategy outlined in this article. For many organizations this will be a significant pivot from the way they currently do business. No matter how many books you read on innovation and how many creative thinkers you hire, you will not reach your full potential without implementing these top strategies first.

Creating a Culture of Innovation
Innovation is an organizational mindset. It requires that you trust your employees, reward their accomplishments and allow them to be human. There are many things you can do to help foster a culture of innovation but trust, recognition and training opportunities are at the top of the list.

The Importance of Trust
The most important characteristic you will find in every highly innovative organization is trust. This is also the most overlooked component in an innovation strategy. Individuals have to feel like they are trusted by leadership to do the right things and thereby allowed to make reasonable mistakes. If your employees have to justify everything they do, every resource that they need and worry about repercussions on every error that they make, then there is a lack of trust in the organization.

Problems with trust vary from organization to organization but it is the responsibility of the leadership to find and alleviate them. You have to find a way to give employees the ability to speak up and make manageable errors. These are requirements for rapid innovation. Innovation is a process of trial and error and by giving individuals the freedom to speak up and make mistakes they are able to fail and learn from those mistakes more quickly.

Recognize Your Innovators
Recognizing innovators can be tricky because most of the time they do not see themselves as innovators. Many people that classify themselves as innovators are actually just disrupters. Disruption is a different topic and can be positive if done correctly but it is not synonymous with innovation.

Chances are that you are not going to have visibility into the details of everything that goes on inside of an organization. Therefore, you have to rely on individuals to identify innovation and determine the appropriate recognition. Building trust and promoting strong relationships within the organization will go a long way to identifying who is doing the innovative things. If someone does not feel threatened they are much more likely to share good things about others.

When innovation is spotted, recognition can be as simple as a half day off, a thank you or even additional responsibilities. The important thing here is the recognition. It can really hurt morale if an employee feels like he or she is going above and beyond their duties and it is not appreciated. It seems simple, but remember, the people that are doing the innovation may not even realize it. They may not be outspoken about their accomplishments or feel that they helped in only some minor capacity and don’t deserve the credit. That is why you have to take a proactive approach to identifying innovation.

Provide Training Opportunities
Transforming a business process or implementing a new program or service usually requires that the person doing the transforming have a good understanding of what is involved. Training is important because it opens up the doorway to actually achieving innovation. You can have an idea on how to change the world but without the proper knowledge to be able to make those changes happen, it is just an idea.

Training also sparks creativity because the mind is thinking about all of the possibilities of the new found knowledge. Training on one subject can lead to innovation in a completely unrelated area because it can form a new frame of thought around an already existing situation. Cross-training can be extremely beneficial because it provides an outside perspective and allows for dialog.

There are many ways to reduce training costs but still train your employees on a variety of topics. There is cross-training, train-the-trainer approaches and the ability to partner with other organizations to host training to share costs. Providing training can also build trust and relationships with employees, so it is something you want to consider seriously.

Don’t Rush Innovation
Sustainable innovation happens in small manageable bites. You cannot change the entire organization in a day and you cannot become extremely innovative without progressing through the lower stages of innovation. The important step is to start.

Defining the Innovation Advocate
Up to this point we have talked about day-to-day innovation that mostly happens internally. While I believe that day-to-day innovation makes the real difference, there is still room for large scale innovation projects and innovation that comes from external stakeholders. To handle this type of innovation you need an innovation advocate or an innovation team that can manage the innovation. This advocate will also play a big role in the recognition and promotion of the innovation program. Below is the role of this individual or team in the innovation process.

Gather Ideas
The process of gathering ideas is fairly straight forward but can be as simple or complex as you want to make it. When trying to solve a problem through innovation you have to be very clear on the problem you are trying to solve and be open to new ideas that may need to be nurtured into a viable solution.

The first part of gathering ideas is to create a submission process. That could be as simple as an email or as sophisticated as a rewards based voting system. Once an idea is received it needs to be vetted and discussed to determine its viability. If the idea makes it through this stage then you can progress to the next stage – selling the idea to the rest of the stakeholders.

Sell Ideas
One of the main reasons it is important to have an innovation advocate is because ideally, that person would have a good understanding of the organization and the relationships to keep things moving forward. When selling an idea you need to focus on the need that the idea fulfills and the benefits it provides. You must also have a plan to take the idea from conception through implementation. Selling ideas can be difficult in an organization that is change adverse but if the things above do not work you can also try explaining the opportunities that are lost if you do not move forward.

Assist in Idea Implementation
Implementing an idea usually falls back on the business unit but the innovation advocate still has some responsibilities during this process. First, they need to continue to build excitement about the idea and communicate the status of the ongoing implementation. It is also important to recognize short-term wins throughout the implementation so that excitement and motivation persist throughout the project. Lastly, you will want to make sure and document any stories or case studies that come out of implementing the new idea. These can be used later when you are trying to sell future ideas.

Partner With Technology
Not all innovation is technology focused, but in today’s world technology plays a significant role. This has led to many organizations trying to align technology with the business. This approach treats technology as a tool to accomplish innovation. Technology is not just a tool to achieve innovation, it is a catalyst for innovation. By partnering with your technology group you turn it into a value center instead of a cost center and this is required in a highly innovative organization. Partnering with technology may require a few adjustments but it is mostly changes in mindset, not business structure. Here are some ways that you can partner with technology.

Seat at the Executive Table
The reach of technology in most organizations is already large and seems to be growing every day. This makes it a requirement that technology leaders have a holistic view of everything that is going on in the organization. Technology is also transforming many areas of business at a rapid rate. Without a view into the high-level initiatives, objectives and problems the organization is facing, technology cannot be used effectively as a resource.

Involvement in Planning
If your technology leader is given a seat at the executive table then they will probably already be involved in planning. The importance of involving technology in planning is to stay aware of current trends in the industry, uncover hidden costs and understand resource constraints. They can also provide valuable input on the timeframe of future initiatives. Sometimes there is redundant initiatives that can be done together or projects that can be shifted around to cut costs and simplify implementation. The technology professional can provide a different point of view that can be beneficial in your planning process.

Project Involvement
Projects make and brake people’s careers. Therefore, it is understandable that project owners often keep them close to their chest. When it comes to projects that involve technology, this can do more harm than good.

If a product is already picked, a budget set and a schedule defined before your technology group is involved, you are setting yourself up for delays and overruns. When considering a technology project, you have to consider support, infrastructure, system integration, backup, disaster recovery, retirement of old systems and not to mention the people to actually do the work. If you get your technology group involved early on, you can define these things up front so that there is less chance of problems later.

This seems like a simple step but it is often the exception not the rule. Every organization that has a formal project approval process should require a project sponsor from the technology group on every project that has a technology component.

Understand Technology
Claiming to be technology illiterate used to be acceptable, but with the level of impact technology has on an organization, individuals no longer have that luxury. Top organization leaders make the effort to at least understand technology at a basic level. Most big technology trends are broken down into layman terms and delivered in formats geared towards non-technical leaders. I am sure that the technology group in your organization would be happy to point you towards some good resources.

Formalize Your Innovation Program
If you diligently implement the procedures outlined above, you will start to see increased innovation take place in your organization. The innovation program is just a way to formalize the process and continue to monitor the level of innovation.

An innovation program makes sure you stay consistently innovative even when leadership changes. To accomplish this you need to create the necessary policies and allocate the appropriate resources to support the program. You also need to formalize your innovation advocate role through changes in job descriptions, titles or committee roles and responsibilities. The program needs to be reviewed regularly by executive leadership so that adjustments can be made as needed.
The way to achieve consistent innovation is to instill these innovation strategies and make them a part of the everyday culture of the organization. Innovation is here to stay and as government leaders we cannot afford to sit back and let these opportunities pass us by.

Originally published in Texas Towns and Cities magazine

Tim Howell is a local government thought leader and frequent writer and speaker on technology, innovation and leadership. He has helped transform local government organizations through creative uses of technology and challenging the status quo.

Tim graduated from Bellevue University with a Bachelors of Science in Technical Project Management and is a Certified Government Chief Information Officer (CGCIO) graduate. He served as the President of the Texas Association of Governmental IT Managers (TAGITM), on the State of Texas Information Technology Strategic Advisory Committee and various other committees both in the public and private sector.