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Lessons From Innovative Companies
By Marcia Zidle   Printer Friendly Version

What does the companies 3M, Polaroid, and Walt Disney have in common. All have innovation in their blood. All encourage an innovative spirit at every level of their organization. For example, 3M has a goal to derive 30% of revenues from products less than 4 years old. Laboratory staff spend 15% of their time on projects of their choice. They are encouraged to mingle with customers, take risks, and champion ideas. Out of this culture has come the famous Post-it notes and other very profitable products.

However, innovation is not the same as creativity. Creativity is an individual process. Everyone is capable of coming up with good ideas. Innovation, on the other hand, is a group process. Innovation results from bringing together the experience, skills, and wisdom of a group to convert good ideas into tangible products, services or processes. In other words, it takes the technique of brainstorming to a much higher level---that of focusing the group's efforts on solving a specific problem, or taking advantage of an opportunity, or improving performance.

So how does a manager or team leader cultivate and harvest innovation in their organization? What can be done to take, for example, an idea for a painting and actually come up with the painting itself? Here are a dozen suggestions for strengthening your team, department or business innovative muscle.

  • Establish brain trusts or innovation teams comprised of management, operations, customer service and other groups to openly explore problems and come up with solutions. Teach people specific creative thinking an problem-solving techniques.
  • Go out and get information directly from your customers. Bring them together to evaluate your existing products and services in terms of their current value and potential value.
  • Actively seek out, develop, encourage, and reward innovation in your employees by having contests, special days, open office areas for brainstorming, etc.
  • Sponsor in house trade show where employees share "how I did it" stories on recent work accomplishments. Schedule regular meetings, open to all employees at all levels, to discuss issues and solicit ideas.
  • Encourage the Edison factor---let people know it's OK to fail. Edison conducted 9000 experiments before developing a working light bulb. The important thing to emphasize is what is learned from a failure.
  • Provide channels which innovative ideas are transmitted to decision makers for feedback and implementation similar to what General Electric does in its "work out sessions".
  • Have a creative corner or special area stocked with books, videos, learning games for people to engage in creative thinking on their own and company time.
  • Each month ask people to focus their creative thinking on a specific issue. Recognize and reward all ideas that are submitted. Follow-up with what is being down with the ideas.
  • Each quarter recognize the person or group that has made a significant contribution or suggestions on important issues.
  • Use daily reminders such as desk calendars, handouts, computer messages or posters that will "nudge" people to be more innovative.
  • Bring people together regularly just to think and talk about issues and ideas. When people are relaxed, the vast mental resources of their subconscious can be put to work.
  • Finally, provide a learning environment that recognizes and rewards "out of the box" thinking and acting. On an operational level, this means constantly encouraging risk taking and innovation and tolerating mistakes and false starts

Are some of these examples already being done in your organization? Or does your team or department need to strengthen their innovation muscle? Which can they start doing right now?

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