People often think of innovation as something coming through a radical change. It is more a matter of continuous improvement. The word “innovation” itself is derived from the Latin verb “Innovare”, which means to renew. Providing fertile ground for continuous innovation is paramount to the long-term success of any organisation. Unfortunately, we often see organisations fall short of unlocking the full creative potential of their workforce due to significant innovation inhibitors.
In the previous article, I wrote about work-related stress and its effects on the organisation and the employee culture. We also discussed mechanisms to overcome stressors using automation.
Now, I will try to do a similar decomposition of innovation inhibitors and how we can mitigate them with the use of technology.
The importance of continuity, balance, and scalability
Innovation inhibitors and workplace stressors partially overlap. On one end, workplace stressors have much wider ranging effects on the organisation and employee culture. On the other end, workplace stressors are only one of the innovation inhibitors, of which the list is much longer.
While we can say that less stress means more room for creativity, if not balanced correctly, it can also veer off towards a lazy innovation culture. We have seen plenty of examples of this. It is enough to think about Nokia or Blackberry to be reminded.
So, managing innovation inhibitors is about finding a balance and building an environment where innovation can come most effortlessly and naturally. And equally important: remain sustainably and constructively present while continuously developing throughout the lifetime of the organisation.
Having worked for years in the telecoms industry, leading product development teams across multiple countries for some of the largest operators in Europe, I can safely say innovation was at the core of my daily tasks. Monitoring market trends, customer behaviour, and being able to create new products which can bring new customers, while keeping the existing customers satisfied, all the while generating stable and improved revenues for the firm was the daily task of my team. And it was one that very often required the ability to think out of the box. I quickly realised that is not something to be taken lightly. As anyone, I too have trials in my creativity. It takes a specific environment for my grey cells to switch gears, and it was on me to provide that environment for my team too, so we could help each other and get the best out of everyone.
During my years in the industry, as well as now, in my current role as the lead for an EMEA-wide automation programme, I have learned a lot about what makes the people tick and how to maximise that potential. To do so on a larger scale, it was important for me to answer one key question: How can I work smarter, rather than harder, on unlocking innovation potential (and adoption) across multiple countries and thousands of users? I saw technology as the key accelerator.
If we are to chart the way to unlocking innovation potential, we have to start from the root cause of it being subdued.
Innovation inhibitors and how to combat them
Based on my experience and corroborated by the extensive research I have done on this topic, I have defined ten major innovation inhibiting factors organisations often fall prey to. And as in the previous article, here too will I accompany each of the factors with potentially preventative and mitigating technological solutions, as well as mechanisms that could help improve the likelihood of employee culture support and long-term success.
- Starved innovation – No matter what other mechanisms you have in place to promote innovation when employees are overworked and overstressed, they will fail at being innovative.
- Centralised innovation – Excessive focus on certain individuals and groups in policy-making and decisive matters which form an empowered and exclusive community of owners and experts.
- Siloed innovation – Teams independently innovate on improvements relevant to their own areas.
- Short-sighted innovation – Organisations focus on short-term goals without sufficient considerations for their long-term effects.
- Innovation dinosaurs – Sticking to habits, priorities, and approaches from the past, only because “they worked” then.
- Penalised innovation – Companies using a rigid approach and not accepting/tolerating failures.
- Innovation communism – No matter who is to be thanked for a successful idea, crediting the contributor is absent completely or distributed across the entire team/organisation equally.
- Frustrated innovation – The organisation can easily pass the tipping point between risk-managing the innovation process and frustrating it as the number of processes and tools intended to risk-manage projects increases.
- Lazy innovation – When the employees have not been incentivised enough to bring innovative solutions to problems to the table, the business will be left suffering.
- Misguided innovation – Not seeing the forest from the tree, with all the projects missing the point in innovating on what truly matters and ensuring overarching significant long-term effects.
I am mindful there are also a significant number of non-technological approaches to addressing these issues. As we can read about these at length on the internet, I will focus on leveraging technology to help along the way.
1. Starved innovation
You can effectively starve the innovation potential of your employees and do so completely indirectly. Just avert the sight from managing workplace stress. No matter what other mechanisms you have in place to promote innovation, when employees overworked and overstressed, they will fail at being innovative. There is not enough energy left for creativity. We dealt with this topic much deeper in the previous article on managing workplace stress with automation.
2. Centralised innovation
Excessive focus on certain individuals and groups in policy-making and decisive matters of a corporation which form an empowered and exclusive community of owners and experts. I.e. Only members of a dedicated team can create new solutions.
- A hierarchically agnostic crowd innovation system where anyone can nominate ideas and contribute to improve/challenge/justify the idea and vote. This can be in somewhat of a similar fashion to popular crowd funding platforms.
- An automated system where anyone can suggest an idea on which firm-wide voting can take place is not a bad idea to trial. To manage quality and alignment of ideas to an organisation’s strategy, a leadership panel can filter the ideas before allowing them to be put to firm-wide voting.
- Reward collaboration within the system, ensure support for and visibility of ideas.
- Fund top ideas where reasonable.
- Show that ideas are heard and actioned against.
- Reposition the existing closed community of owners and experts as subject matter supporters for ideas, so that they can provide insight to idea submitters. Do not put them in charge of filtering the ideas, as this might cause negative impacts on trust, feeling of reduced visibility of idea submitters and be a demotivating factor to potential contributors.
3. Siloed innovation
When the organisation sees innovation pockets across its structure, with teams independently innovating without cross-functional collaboration, we have “siloed innovation”.
It can be very productive and fast paced, but it can also suffer from under-utilised potential, confined returns, and duplication of effort. Duplication of effort here refers to the scenario where multiple teams independently innovate on resolving a similar issue without collaboration.
Siloed innovation can easily miss the bigger picture, as every team is acting based on a narrowed vision of the complete picture. One can argue this is where senior management has the responsibility to step in. It is not unusual however, though quite unfortunate, that we see senior management having own interests in being “the first” or “the best” at finding a solution or inventing a new thing, thus maintaining, often inadvertently, the cross-organisational disconnect. While this challenge merits a deeper reflection on what is causing this from a non-technical perspective, to aid general cross-organisational collaboration and see how technology can ease at least some factors causing siloed innovation, we look at the following potential mitigating actions.
- A singular project management software which provides a centralised view of all active projects in the organisation will increase visibility of ongoing projects.
- AI-enabled dynamic dependency detection between projects, software, stakeholders, causes or goals can help force break up of siloed activities. Many problem-specific solutions are available on the market.
- Dynamic risk assessment can enable sourcing of cross-organisational influences on a project or solution by pinpointing potential failure points and providing a root-cause analysis.
- Ensure that early on, organisation understands that the proposed project management software is there to make their lives easier. The key to success is positioning the software as something helping their project directly, rather than trying to sell a bigger picture of how it will transform the organisation. People associate better with matter of direct relevance and impact to their daily lives.
- For automated or AI-enabled tools, set them up in a way that they unobtrusively work in the background and only deliver ready-to-consume outputs to project teams, without requiring them to do extra work.
- Dynamic dependency detection will help them understand interconnection between projects and should come with actionable improvement insights.
- Dynamic risk assessments will undoubtedly serve as key risk indicators, enabling the team to improve solution/service design, sustainability and business continuity.
4. Short-sighted innovation
Companies focus on policies, which are efficient in only the short run. In the distant future, such companies find themselves in a pothole of redundancy.
To effectively pre-empt or mitigate this factor, one needs to decompose the potential solution further. The underlying technology is machine learning. The non-exhaustive use cases are:
- Detect and forecast market trends;
- Preform market’s risk modelling;
- Preform organisation’s risk modelling;
- Preform project’s risk modelling;
- Stakeholder behaviour analysis to understand correlation between personal and organisational goals;
- Fraud detection analysis;
- Return on investment forecasting and long-term effects analysis.
A pre-requisite is, of course, having enabled these same data analytical tools with sufficient data to gain sight of the organisation’s performance, targets and competing projects and products.
Buy in assurance
- Ready to use models and data analytical tools such as the samples listed above are freely and easily accessible by stakeholders and are pretrained and monitored by data science experts. The ability to quickly and transparently provide insight is crucial to the success of these tools.
- Mandate these analyses as key components in business plans and project documentation.
5. Innovation dinosaurs
Sticking to habits, priorities, and approaches from the past, only because “they worked” then. Stakeholders are suffering from either change fatigue or fear of change. I frown when I hear people talk about themselves as not creative or not able to come up with good ideas. To me, that is due to a misconception of what being creative is about. Small improvements can go a long way if they are continuous. You do not need to think of one revolutionary thing to be an innovator or to be considered creative.
The second case I have witnessed on multiple occasions is people just not willing to evolve their ways out of fear of change.
- Collaborative innovation sourcing platforms, where teams can work together on sourcing and refining ideas. – if in such environment innovation dinosaurs can be positioned as responsible for refining ideas, they will be more likely to over time trigger the creative spark and be an equally contributing member of the team.
- Process mining tools can help detect broken processes and bottlenecks, which can present a problem to be resolved. This is a healthy ground to prompt creative thinking.
- Incite the spirit of competitiveness within the organisation – and do so cross-hierarchy, to ensure all levels are engaged. Provide ample interest for all stakeholders and cascade recognition.
- Establish a linkage between innovation and goals, targets, and benefits.
- Add efficiency gains/contributions as one of the key progress indicators (KPIs) in performance metrics