Innovation at work

Innovation. Perhaps there is no greater buzzword that gets tossed around your office. Sometimes innovation at work is necessary because the market demands it, and you’ve got to figure out a new way of doing things or your customers will leave you for someone who will, such as the conundrum currently facing cable TV providers as more and more customers cut the cord. Innovate or die.

Sometimes innovation is seen as the adrenaline that will propel you past your competition. If only you could innovate, then surely customers would have no choice but to flock to you as you leave your primary competitors in the rearview mirror. Innovation as a strategy.

But regardless of whether you view innovation as a necessity, competitive advantage, or both, one thing is for sure: Everybody wants it, but very few have laid claim to it.

Sure, you’ve probably had your share of smaller innovations such as implementing smoother processes or incremental improvements to your products, but innovations that truly disrupt the marketplace are few and far between. Why?

Well, that’s exactly the question I sought to answer as one of 150 attendees at the Innovation Master Class hosted by The Conference Board and Coca-Cola. We were promised the answer to why disruption is so rare and – more importantly – the secrets of harnessing innovation’s awesome power to create our own disruption.

Learning How to Innovate at Work from Today’s Great Innovators and Disruptors

Over two jam-packed days, we learned about how to innovate at work and cause true disruption from some of the most innovative and disruptive companies in existence.

  • My new friend, Phil Chung from Google (whose impressive introduction boasted more achievements than Queen Daenerys on Game of Thrones), walked us through a case study for how he innovates at Google.
  • Carletta Ooton, Vice President Health and Safety, Sustainability, Security and Compliance at Amazon, delivered an outstanding speech about the way Amazon is set up to innovate and walked us through two examples.
  • Chris Hellman, Global VP at the Coca-Cola Company, shared key insights and lessons learned from their latest innovation: the Coca-Cola Freestyle.
  • Even Root’s own Gary Magenta shared his research on what the greatest disruptive companies have in common. (Side note: If you haven’t seen Gary speak, make sure to contact him. It’s quite the experience.)

Each speech was truly fantastic, and it was amazing to see their commonalities:

  1. Don’t be afraid to fail.
  2. Try new things.
  3. Think with the customer/end user in mind.
  4. See a problem and solve it.
  5. Innovation is an ongoing process; it never stops.

And that’s when it hit me. Innovation is pretty simple. It’s having a culture that supports innovation that’s hard.

Getting Your People Prepared to Innovate

If learning from failure is one of the key tenets of disruptive innovation, how successful will your company be at innovating if your managers are firing employees for each failure? Or how can your company truly be willing to try new things when leaders are saying, “This is the way we’ve done it, and this is the way we’re going to keep doing it.” Can your front line – the ones who spend the most time with your customers – come up with new ways to solve customer problems if they’re thinking, “That’s not my job”?

It’s no wonder that the Googles and Amazons of the world are able to innovate. Their cultures have been set up to support and encourage innovation from day one.

But what about the rest of us?

“I have 40 executives in my organization demanding innovation, but they refuse to change their own behaviors,” somebody at my table told me. “My executives are bought in, but my challenge is getting the other 17,000 employees to change their behaviors,” another chimed in.

And that’s when things started to become very clear to me. It turns out that innovation’s biggest barrier isn’t getting people to understand what innovation is and why it’s important. It isn’t about getting people to buy in to the latest brainstorming techniques. The biggest barrier to innovation is the inability to manage the change it brings throughout the organization.

Four Questions to See if You’re Ready For Innovation at Work

Here are four questions to ask yourself to see if your organization is truly ready for innovation and accepting the changes that come along with it:

  1. Is my leadership team aligned on the need to innovate and willing to model and support the behaviors necessary for innovation to occur? If the answer to this question is “no,” your leadership team needs an intervention – and quick. Without agreeing on the need to innovate and cohesion about supporting the changes that will inevitably accompany any innovations, the directive to innovate will be dead on arrival.
  2. Are my managers equipped and willing to support innovation? Managers act as the key translator from your strategic direction to the front line, so it’s critical they reinforce the messages your aligned leadership team is telling them. The company can’t tell employees, “It’s okay to try new things,” if managers keep telling them, “That’s not your job!” Your managers need to be your biggest advocates. Leaders must make sure managers understand the role they play in the innovation process and sustainment.
  3. Has my entire organization bought into the need to innovate? It’s not just leaders and managers who are guilty of falling into the trap and saying, “I’m just going to keep doing it the way I’ve been doing it.” Change is hard for everybody. Have you brought your entire organization along with you on this journey? Has every person at your organization bought in to the need to change? Have they bought in to the idea of innovation? If not, take the time to educate and inform your people on the importance that innovation has on the future of the business so they feel connected to the journey you’re all about to go on.
  4. Does each role in the organization understand the very specific behaviors they can use to contribute to innovation? It’s one thing to buy into the need to innovate, but another thing entirely to bring innovation to life. What instruction or skill development are you providing to your employees to ensure they can act in innovative ways? And are you going to make sure you’re celebrating and rewarding early wins along the way to ensure this isn’t just the newest flavor of the month? Just like any new initiative, product, or service, your plan to innovate needs a thought-out strategy complete with messages, kickoff, and sustainment tactics. Plan things out and prepare your people, and you’ll be setting your organization up to succeed!

Strategic Implementation Leads to Successful Innovation at Work

The bottom line is that is that the success of innovation – just like every other change or strategic initiative – is not determined by how you define it, but rather if you’re able to implement it. Innovation isn’t so mystical after all. If you look at it through the lens of change management, you too may just have a shot at disrupting the market.

October 30, 2017


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