Nowadays we keep hearing about innovation. The word is buzzing around all the time: innovate to develop as a knowledge economy; innovative solutions to challenges; innovation centres; innovation strategies. Everybody mentions innovation, but what it really means seems to elude most people.
Some argue that it is an outcome – a new, improved or altered product, service, design, technological or business process, the application of an existing technology to a new market or even a new business model.
But others argue that it is the process by which these concepts are developed. As a process, innovation can be planned, managed and taught as any other business discipline such as accounting, marketing, sales or logistics. It is something that can be shaped and harnessed, that is influenced by attitudes and skills, and people can be trained to be more open and receptive to innovation, as well as better innovators.
There is a wealth of knowledge and experience providing guidance on how to develop and nurture innovation
A culture that encourages and facilitates innovation is needed to permeate society in its entirety. Openness to new ideas, to communication, sharing and collaboration, to challenging the status quo, willingness to take new routes, and appreciating errors and failure as a learning experience, are all needed to create such an environment.
Innovative companies, organisations and communities are not born like this – time, resources, persistence, perseverance and commitment are needed. This is no easy task, but it is the only true way to provide for the future of society.
So how do we do this? Fortunately, there is a wealth of knowledge and experience nowadays providing guidance on how to develop and nurture innovation. We can learn from others and also try to create our own way.
Innovation is not set in stone, it is not one and the same for all. Each organisation or community needs to develop its own innovation process in a way that makes sense for itself, for its employees/members and for its outside partners. Innovation is less of a single organisation affair and more of a collaborative activity. Innovation works best when taking a holistic approach, when it involves many stakeholders: businesses, education and research bodies, public sector, NGOs and end-users.
One can mention a few concrete steps that could be taken to support innovation. On the supply side there is generating innovative ideas and concepts within organisations:
• Making propaganda for innovation by promoting, encouraging and recognising innovation and innovative people. Facebook has a Minister for Propaganda printing and distributing posters in its offices to continuously nurture innovation;
• Reading and spreading news on the latest innovations and start-ups;
• Organising training on entrepreneurship as a competence that can be learnt;
• Training and deploying in-house innovation and entrepreneurship coaches to support project teams.
• Interacting with real entrepreneurs and start-up founders – having your office located in an entrepreneurial hub, allocating some of your office area as co-working space for start-ups, inviting them for a networking lunch or coffee, including one on the company board.
• Allowing employees to use some of their paid time to work on own initiatives and projects. Google, for example, practises this approach;
• Organising innovation bootcamps – mixing together for a couple of days, teams with different backgrounds with external experts, and letting them work on a radically novel idea, preferably in a contained, external environment;
• Giving innovative staff a share of the future generated profits.
• Not shying from failure. Tata Group, for example, gives an annual award for the best failed idea;
• Making intrapreneurs feel special by publicly recognising them and giving them benefits. Vodafone implements such a practice;
• Shifting short-term focus to the longer term – balancing what pays the bills today with what will ensure survival in five to 10 years.
Measures are also needed on the demand side, ensuring that innovation is market-driven, appreciated and sought-after by end-users; such measures typically fall under the remit of public organisations are:
• Providing funding for industry-led research projects;
• Implementing pre-commercial public procurement;
• Encouraging creation or attraction of financial instruments suitable for innovative projects (that is, with no track record, higher risk, limited guarantee collateral).;
• Stimulating end-user appetite for, and capability to adopt new products and services.
• Actively engaging the wider public by creating and coordinating living labs communities whose members are ready to test new products and services.
Anamaria Magri Pantea is a freelance consultant in innovation management, business development and EU funding.