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Tapping into innovation

Business, Feature, Management | December 14, 2015 | By:

Founded in 1892, Anchor Industries Inc. started out as a small riverboat supply house located on the Ohio River, says Mike Fuerstenau, director of marketing and product management for the Evansville, Ind.-based company. Although company innovations are often sparked by customer demand, employees have also made significant contributions.

Innovation doesn’t always come easily, but creating a culture that fosters creativity can improve the process (and results) of continuous improvement.

Every company knows that innovation is vital, but knowing how to innovate is a different matter. Why are some companies able to launch one new idea or product after the next while others stagnate?

“An innovative organization is run by, recruits and employs people who can see all new opportunities and threats and are willing to accept and respond to every event, experience or action,” says Faisal Hoque, author of Survive to Thrive−27 Practices of Resilient Entrepreneurs, Innovators and Leaders, and founder of Shadoka. The Stamford, Conn., company (also in London) fosters entrepreneurship, growth and social impact for clients. Those at the top must embrace this mindset, with every leader setting the example, Hoque adds.

“Innovative companies make innovation a part of their culture, not just a part of their strategy,” says Chip Bell, author of The 9 ½ Principles of Innovative Service, and senior partner with The Chip Bell Group, an Atlanta, Ga.-based customer relationship management consulting firm.

“The features of that culture typically include leaders who nurture a work environment with a playful spirit, a ‘why not’ attitude, curiosity with a future focus, nonstop learning and a push or pull, such as a burning platform that pushes employees to be innovative, or a compelling purpose that pulls them there,” Bell says.

Laura Ryan, president of LAMA Innovation, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based company providing training and facilitation for groups and corporations engaged in creative problem-solving, says additional valuable programs include:

  • A way of capturing ideas so good ones don’t get lost. “Create an electronic repository for collecting problems, ideas and solutions,” she advises.
  • A series of stop gates where innovation is vetted to see how far down the pipeline it should go.
  • A culture that encourages balanced risk-taking−one that celebrates rather than punishes failures, understanding that failures are necessary for creativity to thrive.

Along with embracing failure, innovative organizations are consistently able to listen to their “internal and external community,” says Hoque. They’re open to ideas, not just from experts but from anyone and everyone. The management structure is typically flat, without long approval processes or convoluted lines of communication. “Organizations that can’t go flat can achieve the same results by empowering workers to act independently,” he says. And they’re collaborative.

“No organization holds all the cards in developing new innovation,” Hoque adds. “Collaboration with outside groups—complementary corporations, universities, government agencies, think tanks—often brings new perspectives and ideas to the innovation process.” Companies can also foster innovation by giving employees more learning than needed for their jobs, by making learning continuous, and by providing those willing to experiment the time and resources to do so, Bell says.

“For example, Google employees can spend 20 percent of a work week on a work project that interests them,” Bell explains. “The result? Fifty percent of Google’s innovations come from that 20 percent.”

Innovation is a journey without a destination, says Hoque. “It’s a continual process of invention, reinvention and discovery. For this reason, leaders must always set their sights on long-term goals.”

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, Calif.

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