3 Techniques to Encourage Innovation

I was talking with a small group of marketing colleagues this week and one of the topics on the table for discussion was innovation. The conversation ran the gambit with frustration stemming from how to:

  • get senior leaders to focus on innovation strategy
  • innovate across teams with fewer silos
  • infuse more brand marketing strategy in earlier stages of product development.

One colleague’s company that dealt in consumer products had implemented an annual, comprehensive strategic planning process that her product managers religiously abided by, likely because the plan completion was tied to individual goals and compensation.

Another colleague’s company, strictly global B2B sales with custom product formulations, didn’t have an annual process and primarily let customer demand dictate innovation. The challenge was that he had 100 customers spread over 9 product leaders who always put customer calls and needs first, and those leaders never seemed to prioritize strategic planning.

In the course of the conversation, those two colleagues learned several things from each other such as:

  • While their products are drastically different, their go-to-market timeframes are surprisingly similar, both in the 12-15 month window
  • Strategic planning and innovation, within product or marketing, go hand-in-hand
  • If strategic plans are done properly and regularly, they change more than they stay the same because considerable attention is being given to all aspects of the business.

Whether your company is a well-known consumer brand, a behind-the-scenes B2B supplier to major brands, a small business or a non-profit association, you can learn how to develop and improve innovation techniques within your company by simply ensuring there is continual focus and genuine interest in both the process and outcomes.

Here are three ways to encourage innovation at your company:

  1. Adopt an innovator’s mindset. One of the best books on this subject is The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the five skills of disruptive innovators by Jeff Dyer, Hall Gregersen and Clay Christensen. In the book, the authors point out the differences between “delivery” and “discovery” people. Delivery people tend to ensure the client gets what they need when they need it. Discovery people tend to have a more innovative mindset. While both are needed, many companies hire for and encourage delivery skills over discovery skills. The authors propose utilizing a model for generating innovative ideas that includes courage, behavior skills (questioning, observing, networking and experimenting), and cognitive skills to synthesize novel inputs for associational thinking.
  2. Foster collaboration. Sounds easy, but it often can be a challenge in large companies or small. In order to remove silos between product and marketing (many times there’s just a handoff from one to the other), or within any other groups within the company for that matter, you must foster a culture of collaboration. Harvard Business Review’s Spring 2014 OnPoint magazine issue covers the topic, “Collaboration That Works.” It’s a special newsstand issue that I found at my local Barnes & Noble. And a terrific collection of HBR articles that speak to both the pros and cons of collaboration, as well as how to be a collaborative leader, how to foster collective creativity, and how to accept and actively manage conflict which is needed for innovation.
  3. Understand strategic planning is an evolutionary process. Misconceptions still exist about strategic planning, and I know this because I’ve witnessed them. It is common to see companies struggle with the process because they think it requires gigantic effort and feel it is painful for all involved – when it can be just the opposite!I’m not saying it doesn’t take focus but it is now less about certainties and more about probabilities, as stated in a recent Forbes article by Greg Satell on The Evolution of Strategy. And, as early as 2003, Toastmasters International acknowledged this trend of always being “in a state of thinking strategically” and “incorporating the concept of nimbleness” into the organizations’ thinking. The bottom line here is that you don’t need to develop a gigantic strategic plan that people will shove on a shelf and never read or use once it’s complete. That doesn’t help in today’s fast-paced, digital world. A simple one-page plan that includes desired outcomes or opportunities with high-level strategies, tactics and KPIs may be all that is needed to get you started, no matter the organization’s size. Or, just forget all that and use Opportunity Statements instead, as John P. Kotter points out in this HBR article entitled Forget the Strategy PowerPoint.

Your company’s strategic planning frustrations may be similar to those of my colleagues or you just may want to know the best way to get started. Remembering these 3 techniques – adopting an innovator’s mindset, using effective collaboration and understanding that the strategic planning and innovation process is evolutionary and not static – will not only help reduce internal frustrations but encourage a healthy dose of enthusiasm about a participative and ongoing process for you to lead the organization forward in a sustainable way.

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