Innovation means branching out

The best ideas probably aren't generated in head office

If an organisation wants to ensure it fosters plenty of innovation, it needs more sex in the workplace.

That’s the view of IT Catalysts president Bob Lewis. However, Lewis isn’t talking about sex among co-workers; rather, he’s talking about sharing innovative ideas.

He says a business with branch offices could plan all its innovations at its headquarters, but that's attempting divine creation.

“As few business leaders are divine, the odds of anything useful happening are limited, proportional to the number of former branch employees working at headquarters.”

He says another option is to encourage each branch office to innovate, according to its circumstances.

“But if that's all the company does, it's asexual. The branch offices will diverge and because each will have to reinvent each other's innovations, progress will be slow.”

It also means the IT department has to support what will become many ways of doing business — and that's where Lewis says sex comes into it.

“On a regular basis, bring the independently innovating branches together to compare notes and spread the best innovations back among the remaining branches. It's recombination.”

However, Lewis says it’s not easy as it sounds. He says people often think the circumstances at their branch are unique, so they don’t need to worry about what other branches do. Also, if you try to offer incentives like rewarding managers whose innovations are used elsewhere, you might find everyone focuses on selling their ideas, while disregarding other people’s ideas.

Lewis says the answer is not to reward the managers — they should be the brokers of the good ideas, not the originators of them.

“Give bonuses to the employees who suggest the successful innovations, and to the managers who adopt and implement as many innovations as possible, wherever they come from.”

It’s not necessarily easy for IT departments to support all of this but it can be done, Lewis says.

He says branch innovation gives businesses the opportunity to try lots of experiments without betting the whole company on them.

“It's how nature works, and while evolution did give us the platypus, it has also led to a tremendous panoply of amazingly diverse creatures, each exquisitely adapted to its particular set of circumstances.”

Linda Naiman, writing originally in the Canadian Information Processing Society (BC Chapter) Journal says she spoke to companies such as IBM, Microsoft and Cognos which hire highly skilled, self-motivated engineers and technical experts to find out where innovative ideas emerge from.

“They provide training in soft skills, though not in creativity or innovation per se. When asked where ideas come from, most said ideas come from everywhere, including customer interaction.”

She quotes one CIO who says innovation needs to be directed at where it will provide the biggest return — so it’s important that the company’s vision and mission are clearly communicated.

“Executives must cascade strategic plans down to the employee level. Employees need to know where the ship is headed so they can direct their energies to what is important to the business."

Another piece of advice was to give people freedom and trust. “Not all creative endeavours lead to success and smart companies turn failure into learning opportunities.”

Naiman also advises celebrating success and quotes one company that has an ITUS Award (which stands for I Told You (U) So) which recognises the hurdles people have to overcome — including passive indifference or outright hostility from peers and sometimes management — to launch a winning idea.

Naiman says innovation requires strong leadership and support from the executive level.

Finally, an article on CerebralSynergy.com says that encouraging innovation is dependent on the level of creativity among employees and making it part of the review process is one way to inspire creativity.

“This helps employees understand that the organisation expects creativity.”

To stop colleagues from mocking ideas, another suggestion is the Five Minute Rule, which states that for the five minutes following someone suggesting any idea, only positive comments can be made about it.

“This often creates an impromptu brainstorm session, leading to very creative and innovative ideations.”

Mills is a Dunedin writer. Email her at kirstin_mills@computerworld.co.nz

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