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Five Ways To Kickstart Innovation And Build It Into Your Company Culture

Creating a culture of innovation is flat-out hard work. What makes it hard work is that you have to be, in essence, focused on serendipity.  The juxtaposition of “focus” and “serendipity” is paradoxical, and tricky to maintain as a frame of mind personally and in an organization.
Even though it’s hard work, it’s not exceptionally complicated, but you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. When it comes to a culture of innovation, consultants and thought leaders have a way of adding more complication than clarity. Here, I hope to be an exception, with the following list of ways to break this down so you can get to work.
1. Honor Thy Accidents.  While it’s great to hit what you aim for, to make the metaphorical slam dunk, success comes at least as often from responding well when your efforts land you somewhere other than your intended target. If that “somewhere else” is embraced by the public in a way that has commercial value, please stop thinking of it as an accident, something to disavow. In other words, rather than considering your newfound success to be “off target,” draw your new target around where your arrow landed, and shout “bullseye!”
This flexibility can pay off in spades. There are so many great accidents in this world; these “you got chocolate in my peanut butter!” moments. Steve Wozniak is candid on how Apple succeeded while utterly failing at hitting what it aimed for; for example, “we thought everyone who bought our machines would want to be a programmer,” while having no idea that what they were really unleashing was the creation of the personal and professional desktop publishing industries.
2. Resist complacency: embrace internal uneasiness and dissatisfaction. The American auto industry’s blindness as Japanese automakers (and Volkswagen) started to come into the U.S. market provides one of the best-known lessons here in how complacency can set in and ultimately take down your entire industry.
Picture yourself working at GM in the 1960’s.  En route, as you drive your (GM) car to your job at the GM plant, you stop for a traffic light. To the right, you see someone else, also driving a GM car. To your left, there’s someone driving a Chrysler.  Facing you at the intersection, there’s someone driving a Ford. All’s well, you think: these are my own, predictable competitors; Detroit has the market cornered and there’s nothing to fear. I don’t need to change the size, features, or pricing of my cars significantly for the foreseeable future. Because of this easy-to-fall-into complacency, it was easy to dismiss scrappy little Nissan (née Datsun) and Toyota as they made their steady stealth inroads into the mind of the American consumer. 
The thing is, not everyone was blind to what was coming around the corner.  But blindness was reinforced, at that time, in Detroit: bonuses were based on it, peers and bosses cheered you on in lovingly polishing the status quo. Dissatisfaction, on the other hand–finding what was less than ideal, less than appealing to customers, about the current American cars, and what were the good points of the nascent foreign competitors–was unrewarded, and unrewarding, socially and economically, in the Big Three milieu of that time.
This kind of complacency is a predictable human reaction to the vagaries of our world; most people, most of the time, crave comfort, reliable results and the ability to sustain the status quo, and this desire and tendency isn’t only a phenomenon during calm times like yesteryear in Detroit. It also can happen when you’re pushed against the wall with orders for your existing product that won’t, for now, stop coming in.  A parable here – vivid, if a bit silly – would be the boy in the buggy whip factory problem: “Son, stop messing with that new steering wheel idea you’re having; we have to fill our production quota on holiday whip orders.” Although easy to trivialize, this is a real problem, as anyone who has had a company with limited resources (and that’s most of us) can tell you. The solution? Well, if you're really about to go under if you don't get all those buggy whips out the door, then you're in an all-hands-on-deck situation, and you really can't afford the time (at least until the buggy race rush is over) for innovation.  But for the rest of us, the solution lies in Point #3.
3.Build in some breathing space
The idea that a loaded gun clarifies one’s mind is mostly baloney. While some innovation can come at the eleventh hour with a banker holding your checkbook to your head, it's more likely and less painful if you have the resources to make mistakes without them being catastrophic. 
Starbucks, under Howard Schultz and President/COO Kevin Johnson, has become a leader in self-service point of sale technology over the last few years, in spite of already being a leader in a largely human-delivered customer experience. This is a company absolutely flush with cash: a lot of breathing space for experimentation, in other words.  But breathing space without making proper use of it is valueless.  Look at, for example, Western Union, which had decades to make use of the money from its cash cow to adjust to telephony and other then-new technologies. So commit to making use of your breathing space (if you have any) for innovation, rather than just for milking of your cash cow.
4. Strive for a blame-free cultureA blame-free culture is one where people don’t have to worry about covering their, uh, assets and instead can be loud and proud about what they see that’s going wrong, what they see that needs improvement, even the mistakes they’ve been part of themselves.  Without this, your company can never improve, because everybody will be acting like all is well already.
5. Be aware that there is more than one area of potential innovation. Market-facing innovation gets all the press: the iPhone, the self-driving car, the Uberization of X. But product/service based innovation is far from the whole story. Here are three areas where you should be embracing innovation:
  • Product: What you sell or make
  • Process: How you make it, how you sell it
  • Business Model: How your company is conceptualized
Once everyone is aware of the areas are available for innovation, you can truly make innovation everybody’s job.  It won’t be easy, and it can’t just be done once and be expected to self-sustain forever.  Keeping innovation as everybody’s job requires modeling by leadership, building peer pressure on the subject, and daily reinforcement.  But it works, and it’s worth it.

Micah Solomon is a company culture consultant, innovation consultant, customer service consultant, innovation keynote speaker, and bestselling author.

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