Leadership for Life – Fostering Innovation

By on June 15, 2012
Fostering Innovation

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One of the buzzwords over the past couple of years of business literature is “Innovation.” According to various pundits, it’s not enough to compete on a level playing field. Organizations that want to do better than just survive a downturn have to come up with something new. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a new product, an improved service, or a better production system – as long as it’s INNOVATIVE.

I’m pleased to say that I was a proponent of innovation before it became popular. But I’ve always been a fan of “new brooms.” If you’re a leader looking for innovators to turn things around for your organization – be careful what you ask for! Innovators are not idol worshipers – they’re more often idol smashers. Innovators aren’t likely to have as much respect for traditional ways of doing things, no matter how successful or venerable they may be. If you or your organization have a hard time dealing with change, maybe your quest for innovators ought to be put on hold for a while.

On the other hand, if you’re open to new ideas that will improve production, service, quality, et al, have you thought of asking your front line people – you know, the ones who actually do the job – for their ideas? I’ve heard it said that no one knows better how to improve a product or service than the one who actually makes it or delivers it.

According to Scott Anthony (http://blogs.hbr.org/anthony/2012/05/four_innovation_misconceptions.html), innovation in business needs to be built into the fabric of the organization, rather than a New! Improved! product or process that makes a big splash from time to time. Anthony also asserts that innovation has to make an impact on the business, and doesn’t necessarily have to be a “million dollar” idea to be of great value. Indeed, my colleague George Friesen would argue that it’s the small stuff – the incremental changes – that ultimately make a big impact over time.

So what does a leader do to foster innovation?

For one thing, great leaders know that taking risks is part of an environment that fosters innovation. Risk means the possibility of failure. If people in any organization are punished for failure, creativity and innovation come to a grinding halt.

Another principle that applies to innovation is that as many people as possible need to be involved in the innovative process. If innovation is a management-only prerogative, then not much will happen, since managers are pretty much wedded to the status quo. (If you disagree with that last statement, feel free to argue in the comments section below, or write me directly at bschapiro@stlcc.edu. Silent gnashing of teeth doesn’t count.)

One approach to marshaling the innovative talents of employees at all levels is to put them in a Problem Pit. What’s a Problem Pit? I’m glad you asked. A Problem Pit is a group of people from all levels and departments in the organization who come together with a facilitator for an indefinite period of time in a retreat environment. They are given the task of coming up with a problem that needs to be solved – and then solving it. The facilitator’s role is mainly to enforce a set of ground rules to ensure that everyone participates in ways that advance the group’s purpose, and to communicate with Senior Management about the group’s progress. The group remains together until Senior Management has determined that a sufficiently important problem has been identified and solved. A Problem Pit may exist for a day or two, or sometimes several days.

I’m happy to share more details about how to set up and use a Problem Pit to develop a more innovative culture in your organization. Call me at 314-539-5329, or send me a message at bschapiro@stlcc.edu.

About Barry Schapiro

Barry is the Workforce Solutions Group Practice Leader for Leadership and Professional Development. His experience includes delivery and management of business training in a variety of industries, with specialties in leadership, team development, generational diversity, and customer service. Twitter

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