The excuses ring loud but hollow: No time. Too busy. Too many things to do. Yes, organisations are living in the moment, too caught up with the present to think about the future. Running day-to-day operations. Fighting fires.
But even if they had time, you might hear: Boss says cannot. (Which is a very colloquial, Singlish way of saying, management does not approve.) Or: Do for what? Later boss think I very free. (Which is Singlish for: I’m not going to put in that extra effort in case the boss thinks I’m not gainfully employed.)
These are just some of the impediments of innovation.
But what is innovation and how is it important?
Innovation, simply defined, means the introduction of something new: a new method, a new product or a new idea. And innovation is important because it leads to progress, it helps businesses to be more productive and competitive and is thus crucial to its survival and success.
However, for the very fact that innovation leads to change, it is unconsciously impeded by processes that are in place within a business or organisation, and the most common spontaneous reaction from bosses to anything that looks like it is “no”.
And according to Steve Blank in the Harvard Business Review, organisations start off being open to new ideas, new methods and new strategies as they set new targets and meet new customers – they’re a little scrappy at the beginning and are flexible, which makes them more likely to innovate. However, as these organisations become more successful, they start to build on process so that they have a standard of repeatable actions which they can scale.
“Process,” says Blank, “is great when you live in a world where both the problem and solution are known. Process helps ensure that you can deliver solutions that scale without breaking other parts of the organization.”
But what if the problem and solution are not known? Each layer of process would make the organisation less flexible in responding to business challenges – both opportunity and threat. So they try to be innovative – by creating innovation activities such as hackathons, design thinking classes, innovation workshops which celebrate the idea of innovation but are not in themselves, innovation, but innovation theatre. In other words, they “make wayang”, or stage an opera, in the vernacular.
Innovative thinking cannot be left to an individual, a department or an external consultant. The way forward with innovation is to provide a culture and an environment for ideas to thrive.
Empower your employees to innovate: Too often, managers are concerned that straying from the accepted standard operating procedure (SOP) would cause disruption to workflow. They also fear that allowing staff to come up with innovative ideas and strategies would distract them from time-honoured processes. Innovation from within an organisation requires the buy-in of managers and bosses, or employees would not take the risk to innovate at all.
Motivate your employees to innovate: Once employees know that they’re empowered to innovate, the next step would be to encourage them to do so through incentives and rewards. These should be in place all year round and not held as an annual contest or you’ll risk turning it into innovation wayang. Giving time to your employees to reflect on the processes of their work could also be a way of encouraging innovation.
Create a strategy for the follow through of innovative ideas: This may sound like a process, but it is a process that would make other processes better or create new ones that would increase productivity and efficacy. Organisations need to have a strategy that would see the implementation of innovative ideas and alignment throughout the organisation so that the creative ideas do not go to waste.
Allow ideas from anyone or any department in the organisation: Innovation should not be the responsibility just one group or worse, just one person. All employees should be encouraged to come up with innovative ideas because they have a unique perspective of the working requirements as well as customer demands. Allowing everyone to “think out of the box” instead of just one department would mean harnessing the creativity of the entire organisation towards innovation.
All these would go a long way towards creating an environment for innovation. Bosses, leaders and managers of organisations need to do their part by encouraging innovation, or at least, not doing anything to discourage it. Sometimes, even using phrases such as “best practices” could shut down a wonderful idea even before it can see the light of day because innovation, by its very nature, cannot be considered that because you have no means of judging something that has not been tried or tested.