The world is changing, and customer expectations are evolving. So, innovation is the heartbeat of customer experience. But how do you innovate?
Innovation, the late Peter Drucker points out in his landmark book, The Discipline of Innovation, is the “effort to create purposeful, focused change in an enterprise’s economic or social potential.” He adds that it’s different than other disciplines. You hire accountants for accounting, marketers for marketing, and lawyers for your legal department. But where are your innovators? Your employees! Innovation comes not from genius or exceptional talent, Drucker concludes, but from a “conscious, purposeful search for innovative opportunities.”
The challenge is, many employees see innovation as risky. In some cases, it’s shot down subtly. Mention a new idea, and your manager might respond with a question: “Isn’t our service level under some pressure right now?” Or an unconvincing “Sounds good, we’ll have to take a look.” A colleague might snicker, “We’ve never done it THAT way.” In many cases, the organization’s top leadership is fully committed to innovation—but they are unaware of how it plays out with managers, supervisors and employees in the ranks.
Someone at Work, Cardiff State Beach near San Diego
Innovation is a cool word, but at its heart is change. So you have to be intentional about encouraging and enabling innovation. Your goal should be universal participation in product and service innovation. Anyone can have the next great idea. Here are five keys to seeing that happen.
Identify and remove barriers to innovation. This first recommendation is overarching and ongoing: find and remove (as possible) barriers that stand in the way of innovation. There are many ways to identify barriers. You can, for example, include this question on surveys, work it into informal conversations, or conduct focus groups with employees. Common barriers include no time, not sure what to do with an idea, nothing happened with past ideas, and spending time and focus in this way could jeopardize other performance objectives. You may hear things that are appalling—but the bigger the barriers, the larger the opportunity.
Ensure managers see it and track it. The innovation learning curve is steep—and it’s common for managers, especially, to hold tightly to entrenched approaches and processes. You need an environment where new ideas are shared during team meetings, coaching sessions, and informal discussions (as well as through formal channels). You’ll need managers to advocate for employees’ great ideas, and coach them through the process, rather than passing the idea up through the chain with a perfunctory “thanks.” The goal is to see innovation become an inherent part of the employee journey.
Establish an effective process for capturing, analyzing and implementing ideas. You’ll need a process and supporting tools for gathering, consolidating, evaluating, and tracking ideas. Without a thoughtful approach, ideas will get lost, become separated from the contributor, or be blocked from going further. Should that happen, employees will initially ask, “What happened to my idea?” Then they’ll quickly give up: “Why bother?” On the other hand, where employees see ideas firing everywhere, they understand that innovation isn’t just a “program.” It’s a critical and expected part of the culture.
Tie recognition to strategic opportunities. If new product innovation is the key to revising an aging product line, be sure to make that connection when acknowledging those contributions. If customer service innovation is a strategic focus, recognize employees who contribute ideas that impact the service channels. Of course, don’t limit the generation of ideas across any area. But concentrate brainpower in critical areas and communicate priorities through recognition. This is how programs like 2020’s Earthshot Prize, a UK climate change initiative, are so effective— they incentivize and reward innovation, while drawing broad attention to the initiative itself.
Tie innovation contributions to the impact they have on customers. As you capture and tell stories, include the germination of ideas, details about the employees who developed them, and (as possible) examples of customers impacted by the ideas. An insurance organization created life-size cut-outs of their quarterly innovation prize winners, along with summaries of the employees’ innovative ideas or projects. After being displayed in the lobby each quarter, they were moved to the main hallways. This created a visual reminder of the company’s priorities.
Your employees notice whether products and services are fresh and evolving. They’ll look at practices and processes. They’ll pick up on what gets recognized at town halls and team meetings. Innovative organizations make innovation a priority.