Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower. -Steve Jobs
When Dr. Brown describes how he invented time travel in Back to the Future, it involves a singular “aha!” moment where he hit his head and experienced a vision. As much as the moment is meant to be a bit of a joke, that’s not far from how most people think innovation works.
They imagine that light bulb moment where the genius inventor suddenly understands everything about his or her world-changing idea. It’s the kind of belief that glamorizes the mystery and romance of innovation, but it’s not especially useful in the business world.
While this type of accidental innovation does happen, companies that rely on it are destined to struggle, because you can only stumble onto great ideas once in a great while. They’ll simply ride their happy accident as long as they can, hoping and praying that it happens again.
If companies want repetitive innovation – and that should absolutely be a goal everyone strives for – they have to teach people how to innovate and create a culture that supports it.
How You Teach Innovation in Business
The first thing that companies hoping to create a culture of innovation need to understand is that it doesn’t happen overnight – at least not most of the time. Often, what may seem as immediate as a switch flipping on is really the product of years of work where the inventor goes through more trial and error than most people can stomach.
Second, companies must embrace the idea of the small. Not in the sense of literal size, but in regards to the fact that most innovations aren’t earth-shattering in the short term or by themselves. One employee may have an idea for a change to your process that improves things slightly, but after another dozen workers have added their own insights over a number of months or years, it becomes something groundbreaking. Was it the last person’s addition that should be credited? The first? The point is that no one would be anywhere without the help of everyone’s contributions along the way.
In order to breed this kind of innovation in business, there are a number of things that companies can do.
- Encourage interaction between departments and disciplines. People are more likely to innovate when they come into contact with new ideas, and one of the best ways to facilitate this is to have them interact with people outside their regular realm. What may be a commonplace idea or practice in one culture or discipline may be unheard of in another, and by learning about it and applying it in new circumstances, you can create something unique and different that changes the way things are done.
- Reward people for thinking outside the box. This doesn’t have to mean a literal reward, but companies that praise their employees for trying something new – even when it doesn’t work out – are far more likely to uncover innovative products and ideas than those whose employees are too frightened of the consequences to step out of line. And as an offshoot of this one, never toss out things that seem to be mistakes. Just because you didn’t get what you wanted from an idea doesn’t mean that someone else can’t see how to use it in a different way. Which leads us to…
- Educate your workers about what’s out there. The printing press didn’t come out of thin air – Gutenberg used an existing wine press. One of the most powerful tools in innovation is the Adjacent Possible. It’s the idea of taking something that works in one context and changing it or modifying it to work in another. We do this kind of thing all the time in small ways, but encouraging your staff to actively think about new ways to use already existing technologies can lead to a wealth of inventions.
The point for businesses is that you need to be purposeful about creating a culture of innovation. Plan for those interactions and dynamics that seem like they are most likely to lead to it, and don’t be afraid to stray from your original rules if something seems to be working. Perhaps your innovation will be in finding new and unique ways to innovate.