Why Most Companies Fail at Innovation (And What to Do Instead)

Recognize This! – Innovation is not just the big, market-transforming end result, but the little ideas along the way.

What’s the most powerful word in business today? Innovation.

Read any blog, any news source, any prospectus and you will quickly stumble over “innovation.” How the company pursues innovation, how innovative the products are, how “innovation” is a core value of the company. And this is all well and good – innovation truly is what propels industries and markets ever forward.

But the real question smart companies should be encouraging every employee, in every role, to ask is: “What can I do, in what I do every day, to be more innovative? How can I innovate our product, our service approach, to better serve our customers, change the market, or push the company forward?”

Unfortunately, too many people think innovation is too big for them or “not in my job description.” I believe that’s because we as leaders have failed to explain what real innovation actually looks like. David Steinberg, chief executive of XL Marketing, gives a much better definition of innovation in a recent New York Times “Corner Office” column:

“Innovation to me doesn’t have to be about creating the light bulb or the telegraph. Innovation can be very important small changes to something that’s already working. That’s the stuff that’s overlooked, and it can take things to the next level.”

Innovation is the perseverance to keep searching, to keep tweaking, to keep making something better. In reality, it’s usually many small innovations over time that result in a huge “new” innovation that gets all the press.

Kaihan Krippendorff explains it as committing to continually looking for the fourth option:

“The ‘fourth option’ is the option others don’t see and don’t expect. Your competitors contemplate three choices and feel satisfied that they are considering enough. But the strategic innovator is not satisfied. She asks, what else? What other option are people overlooking?”

So, back to my original question – how do you encourage all employees to seek the fourth option, to pursue the small changes for continuous improvement?

You must help employees see and understand what this looks like in their daily work. The quickest, most positive, and most effective way to do so is through strategic recognition. Every time an employee demonstrates an attribute of innovation in this way, recognize them for it. Say, “John, thank you for contributing to our goal of continuous innovation with your diligence on the Suarez project. The way in which you kept asking the next question to drive to not just our standard solution, but a truly unique approach in this situation not only solved the client need, but gave us an avenue to advance our solution and meet an unexpected market need going forward. Well done!”

That specificity makes the difference for John by letting him know what exactly “innovation” looks like in his daily work. When publicized through an internal social newsfeed, it also serves as an excellent training mechanism for other employees who can see why John was recognized and emulate that behavior in their own work.

How is innovation encouraged in your organization? How are you innovative in your own work?

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