So let’s start at the beginning, what is innovation and can we put a nice definition around it? What characteristics/behaviours should be in place and/or engrained within an organisation before it can successfully innovate?
Well there are plenty of definitions out there e.g. Wikipedia states that "innovation is a new idea, device or process. Innovation can be viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, inarticulate needs, or existing market needs".
Steve Jobs famously said that “Innovation is not about saying yes to everything. It's about saying NO to all but the most crucial features.” But let’s make it simpler.
For me innovation is all about solving a problem by doing the "cool stuff", looking forward rather than the mundane. It’s about playing with the latest technology or challenging the status quo...but having fun with a big smile on your face.
Innovation can be used to solve a technology issue that was thought too complex, create a new product or to differentiate your services in a crowded marketplace.
My definition is not from any book or lecture - for me innovation, simply put, is solving a problem with a mix of having fun, positively challenging the status quo, yourself and others.
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It’s about thinking outside of the square where you’re not afraid to look at an existing or new problem in a different light. Be inquisitive or maybe a bit odd (that’s where the can of V helps), put yourself in a different environment, get out of the office, sit in a field, on the beach or anywhere you can gain some clarity on what you are trying to solve/change so that the usual work environment does not keep interrupting you.
It’s about playing with the latest technology or challenging the status quo...but having fun with a big smile on your face.
Start by wondering, “If there was nothing holding me back or nothing in my way, how would I solve this issue?” That said, can you truly think like that?
There may always be constraints such as money, legal or regulatory or even technical restrictions. So does innovation always have boundaries? Most of the time I would say “yes”, but where you can truly be successful is when you work within these constraints to innovate.
To enable your team to innovate you must have a supportive culture in place, where employees can have the time and mandate to innovate, and where they’re trusted and given freedom to create and implement innovative solutions.
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Individual effort with team acceptance
I’m happy for individuals to look at innovative ways to solve a technology or process problem. But once they are happy with their solution I would rather the individual gets the collective agreement of the team as to how it is to be used and implemented. I want individuals to get their team on board so that everyone has the opportunity to be a change champion. The individual ideally needs to get team velocity behind their new solution/idea and for the whole team be really excited by what they have created and its possibilities.
From experience it is necessary to set some high level innovation boundaries, for example you may not want your team to play around with your software deployment processes for a particular application by adding in new repositories or moving from a standard deployment method for all applications to different standards depending on the application you are deploying. That said, if the idea or solution had the ability to save the company millions or to create millions in additional revenue then all restrictions may go out the window. Having a clear strategy around the use of technology or company direction will also play an important part in guiding innovation. For example a company may focus on using cloud based solutions or want to move all support via online channels. At least by having some boundaries it will focus your team’s innovation effort on areas relevant to your business.
If you have a great team that has your trust, the time and feels empowered to try things out and is willing to positively challenge the status quo to solve problems then there is a good chance that innovation will become an accepted part of your organisational culture, with or without boundaries.
Peter Yates (@peteyatesnz) is head of operations and platform delivery at Spark Ventures (formerly Telecom Digital Ventures). His previous roles included technology services group manager/CIO at Foster Moore and IS infrastructure manager at Auckland Council.
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