Fostering Innovation: How to Stay Ahead of the Curve

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In most sectors the external business, political, and competitive environments are extremely fast-moving. Technologies that would have once been considered 'science fiction' are now seen as the norm, and organizations increasingly need to engage with their customers in new ways. Maintaining the status quo is rarely an option – organizations that ignore the changes in their environment risk withering on the vine. Yet knowing where to find innovation, and which opportunities to pursue can be a challenge.

Innovation should not be seen as within the realm of only those who hold senior roles. Feedback and actionable ideas can come from anywhere in the organization – indeed the challenge is rarely a lack of ideas but the willingness to provide the resources and focus to implement a selected few. This can lead to a stalemate situation where those closest to the customer – those on the front line – feel ignored as even the smallest of ideas seems to take years to implement, or they receive polite rebuttals to every idea that they raise. Building innovation into our organizational psyche requires significant thought.

If we truly want to foster innovation in our organizations, we need to maintain a firm focus on collecting and collating ideas, and also implementing appropriate changes. We need to ensure that stakeholders feel heard, and that we instill the expectation that controlled adaptation and regular incremental process change should be the norm. This can be initiated by keeping a regular check on our business environment, so we know when to move quickly and what sorts of innovative ideas to pursue.

We can do this by establishing a series of environmental indicators within our organizations and within our business processes. Like 'sensors', these provide us with quantitative and qualitative data about how our industry (and our customers' expectations) are changing. For example, monitoring satisfaction of end-to-end processes can help us establish how our customers perceive us. We might think we're doing a good job by replying to all customer e-mails within 48 hours, but if all of our competitors have interactive 'live chat', we may be falling behind the times and the customer feedback may show this. Indeed, in this situation we may want to look ahead and think about how we can use technology and processes to overtake our competitors and provide even better service. Changing expectations can act as a catalyst to innovation.

Additionally, it's important to monitor customer insight, comments and complaints. Each valid complaint is a potential opportunity for us to incrementally improve and address any issues in underlying processes, technology, training or other areas. Monitoring complaints – individually and over time – allows us to spot trends and changes. We can deploy a range of these environmental indicators, and we can build them into our processes. We can track sudden peaks and troughs (as well as long term trends) that indicate a potential problem or opportunity that can be investigated. Of course, raw data rarely tells the full story. An 'oil warning' lamp on a car is a crucial internal indicator – it tells you the oil level is low. It doesn't tell you why – and the same is true of the types of organizational 'sensors' we are discussing. Further qualitative and quantitative analysis will be required.

The specific indicators we examine will vary depending on the organization and will include a mixture of internal and external metrics. These become an additional pair of eyes and ears that continually scan and report. Furthermore, responsibility for analyzing the data and proposing changes can be distributed. Stakeholders throughout the organization can work together to co-create a common understanding of the problem or opportunity and to imagine multiple possible solutions. Once a solution is chosen, those involved will likely feel more 'bought in' than if they'd simply had an e-mailed reply from a manager to a suggestion they had raised as part of a suggestion scheme. By creating a common and holistic understanding of the problem or opportunity we break down 'innovation silos' and build collaborative innovative networks. And in doing so we build processes that have adaptability built into their very fabric, and we cultivate a culture of ongoing improvement. Fostering this innovative culture will help us adapt and stay ahead.

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