Innovation is a hot topic these days. A quick search returns 213,955 LinkedIn posts and 406,000,000 Google results including that word. As an innovation evangelist, the predominance of innovation in the business lexicon may appear to be a positive development. However, a quick perusal of these articles reveals a disturbing trend. Like so many key business concepts that have come before, the term “innovation” is being thrown around like just another MBA “buzzword” by leaders who do not understand what it truly means nor how to bring it to fruition within their organizations.
Innovation is not a dress code. It cannot be dictated, ordered, or forced. It does not occur on demand. Innovation is more akin to a delicate flower. It requires the constant attention of the gardener (leader) to clear the weeds (impediments). It must be given the proper conditions (culture) to grow. Its seeds must be planted gently in the ground (organization). Innovative ideas can be fostered, supervised, and encouraged to take root but cannot be forced to do so.
Find a Gardener
Without a gardener, there is no garden. In the garden that is your organization, there must be someone who works almost exclusively—if not entirely—on finding, cultivating, and shepherding innovative ideas through the bureaucracy. It is this person who separates the wheat from the chaff, prepares the land to accept the seeds, and clears inevitable impediments to growth. A garden without a gardener is just a weed patch and the same fate awaits an organization that attempts an innovation program without adequate leadership support.
Prepare the land
You can’t plant an orchid in the desert. You can try but it isn’t going grow. As with the orchid, you cannot plant the seeds of innovation in an environment that is hostile to its growth. You have to soften the ground and fertilize the earth before you can sow the seeds.
In an organization, this means changing the culture and mentality of the whole firm. Everyone, on every level, must be encouraged to submit their ideas. The words “no,” “that’s not what I was looking for,” or “are you serious?” have no place here. They are akin to putting a bucket over your new plant. Your team must not be afraid of change and they must know that their ideas will be taken seriously. In the interest of keeping this short, I will refer you to my previous post on empowering employees for further discussion on this topic. However, an important point to remember is that we must encourage our teams to present ideas they have. It is simply impossible, impractical, and ill-advised to attempt to force someone to come up with an innovative idea. That just isn’t how innovation works.
Plant the Seeds
Now that the gardener has been hired and the ground has been prepared, it is time to plant the first seed. At this time, it is important to remember that the redwood forest didn’t grow in a day. Your first ideas will most likely be small. Your team isn’t going to bring you that one big idea before testing the waters with something small. Take that small idea and go with it. Even if you “know” it isn’t going to work, give it the full vetting effort. Let your team know that you are serious about implementing their ideas. Trust me. After seeing that you are willing to give a marigold a chance, they will bring you redwood seeds soon enough.
Innovation is not a policy or procedure. It cannot be ordered to occur. Innovation is a delicate flower that has the power to transform your organization if care is taken to give it the attention needed to take root within your organization.