What does “Innovate better” really mean?

In this series of blog posts, (Improving collaboration & Breaking down silos, what does that mean?) I have talked about the jargon that tends to fly around social business. Today, I’m going to make it personal.

When we talk about innovation, we’re really talking about doing things differently to achieve better outcomes. Dictionary.com defines innovate as “to introduce something new; make changes in anything established.” This sounds great and it makes it clear why leadership wants their companies to innovate better, but it’s never as easy as it sounds. There are many challenges and personal behaviors that need to be addressed to be truly innovative and successful at having your employees innovate better.

It starts with the idea

To better understand innovation, let’s look at the core, the idea. Ideas are very personal. Why? Because they are ours. When you come up with an idea, you’ve invested your time and energy into thinking about something and processing and in the end you have an idea. This investment in the idea makes it very fragile, sort of like a baby.  At this point, you’ve probably reviewed the idea a few times; looking for flaws, but this self-validation of the idea is only the first step. The next step requires courage, it requires you to tell someone else your idea. At that point, the other person is now judging your idea and in many cases you. This process doesn’t only happen once, it happens many times. At some point, your idea may not just be judged by an individual, but by a committee leading to a whole new social dynamic. Each step in the process improves your confidence in your ideas as you get validation, but the stakes also increase as ideas tend to work their way up the decision chain, increasing the risk and potential disappointment.

To be fair, most of our ideas are far weaker than we believe them to be, not necessarily because the idea is bad, but because we don’t understand all the constraints and are unable to effectively communicate the vision of the idea and don’t have any clue on how to make them happen.

Innovation requires work

It’s one thing to be the “idea guy” and throw your idea out for others to act upon, but don’t be surprised when nobody does. The main reason that is has to do with the other part of ideas…change. People who are comfortable with the status quo put a lot of work into fighting off change. Your challenge now is not only to have a great idea, but also avoid the landmines that it takes to get it implemented.

In most cases, ideas alone are not enough; it requires vision, tenacity and drive. Thomas Edison suggested that genius is 1% inspiration (idea) and 99% perspiration (work), yet most of us are content to take our ideas and throw them over the wall thinking someone else will make them happen and in return for our great idea, we’ll get lauded as the hero.

Genius: 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration – Thomas Edison

To be blunt, leadership doesn’t have the time to babysit. They need people who can navigate the waters to get ideas implemented. In many large companies, it’s easy to talk about problems and how to solve them, but it’s really difficult to act upon those ideas and implement change. It requires thick skin, the ability to handle rejection, the resourcefulness to work around roadblocks and the tenacity to not give up.

So, what does leadership want?

I believe leadership really wants innovators who not only can come up with good ideas but can actually execute them (the quicker the better).

Think – Come up with ideas that will improve the core values and priorities for the company

Act – Take the good ideas and make them happen

Recently, I saw a post from David Armano, Move Over Entrepreneurs, Here Come The Intrapreneurs. An intrapreneur is defined as: “An employee within a large company who takes direct responsibility for turning an idea into a profitable new product, service, business, etc., often instead of leaving to start their own company”, according to the Cambridge Dictionary. This ultimately is what many business leaders want. But many leaders don’t understand why there aren’t more inside their company. Ultimately this comes down to the appetite for risk inside the company and existing commitments. Many large companies are so risk averse (a whole other blog post) that they won’t support anything that isn’t guaranteed to be a unilateral success. Additionally, many of the people who would be equipped to execute effectively may already be over-committed.

When we look at innovation inside a large company, everyone is to blame for why it doesn’t work. Leadership doesn’t necessarily have the visibility into the difficult landscape inside the company to get something done, and employees tend to become risk-averse and/or overcommitted.

Challenging the jargon

  • What exactly do you expect when you say “Improve Innovation”?
  • Is it about ideas or execution (or both)?
  • How are ideas priorities and vetted today?
  • What happens to ideas that aren’t bad, but just aren’t right?
  • What resources exist for good ideas to become reality?

One way to improve the probability of innovation inside a company is to have a program designed to teach people not only to have ideas but also to act on them, and how to become Intrapreneurs. But that alone is not enough. Not everyone who has a product idea wants to become a product manager. This is one area where an Enterprise Social Network can provide tremendous value inside your company. Opening ideas to a larger audience can remove some of the ownership bias that may kill really good ideas before their time. But, it still will take time and demonstrated success to show people that ideas are both wanted and actionable to give them the courage it takes to put their ideas out in public. It will also require that people see how bad ideas are handled in this public forum to ensure that they won’t be embarrassed or worse.

Hopefully, you have enjoyed my series on jargon in the Social Business/Enterprise 2.0 space. If you have more jargon, I’d love to hear it. If I get good ones, I’ll address them in upcoming blog posts.

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