Driving Innovation in a Culture
It’s sad, but true: There are very few innovative organizations. But while it is rare to find an entire company with the agility and ability to break new ground, in our travels we do find pockets of innovation everywhere we go. These are teams, locations, branches and so forth that find unique and profitable ways to serve their customers better.
Some of the senior leaders we speak with tell us proudly about their innovators. We’ve noticed that a key difference between outstanding managers and the mundane, is whether they allow their rule-breakers to flourish. Can they challenge the status quo? Unfortunately, too many leaders are too quick to bring innovators back into line.
We once worked with one of the world’s largest technology companies, where one geographic group introduced a new credit card—out of character for the venerable firm—that took off. It generated $1 billion in new income its first year and was wildly profitable! The corporate sales and marketing group quickly took over this skunkworks project. And in the second year, the project saw a 90 percent drop in revenue. An executive joked to us: “We couldn’t help ourselves. We hate outliers.”
The bottom line: Your teammates have more ingenuity, drive, and passion to give. You have employees walking your halls today who have great ideas in their pocket, but they will not reveal those ideas until they feel like partners in the organization. And to accomplish that, we must give them a voice.
Just one best practice we’ve seen in action in innovative cultures: Assign a designated ombudsman who is accountable for listening to employee ideas. This ombudsman is not the boss, but a person with influence who is tasked with evaluating employee ideas and, if practical and worthwhile, helping present them to leadership. After all, true innovation usually happens in the trenches.