How to make your organisation a hotbed of incremental innovation

Mix things up, foster dissent and be patient.

by Frazer Bennett
Last Updated: 10 Oct 2017

We often think successful innovations are born out of that ‘lightbulb moment’. Flashes of inspiration that change the rules of the game overnight. But the reality is often quite different. Innovation is hard graft, and even the most disruptive come after many small incremental developments and years of effort.

So where should leaders prioritise their efforts to maximise the chances of success? The focus should be on the incremental rather than the disruptive. And leaders need to invest in creating the right conditions to help these incremental innovations happen. You don’t create an ‘innovation culture’ by setting up a department and sticking the name above the door. From our research combined with more than 70 years of inventing products, developing technology and finding new ways of doing things for our clients, we’ve seen what works.

Mix things up

At heart, we’re all birds of a feather. We seek out people who are like us and think like us. But for the sake of innovation, we should do the opposite. Our latest research revealed that 78 per cent of organisations that are successful innovators have executive and leadership teams with a diverse range of skills and professional backgrounds. And 81 per cent of that group say they’re making good progress around diversity across their organisations.

So you might want to rethink your recruitment policies. Or just experiment. Maybe take a leaf out of The Spectator’s book – they recently hired a 48-year-old mother of three as an intern. Pick a role you’re recruiting for and try their approach: don’t ask for a CV, devise challenges or tests that will tell you if someone has the mindset you’re after and/or potential to develop skills you want.

If you’re putting together a project team include staff from less obvious departments. We were brainstorming product ideas for a hi-fi business and brought in colleagues from the post room, the IT department and the admin team. (They have different skills, different life-styles and were twenty-, thirty- and forty-somethings.) And a gaming company we worked with found fascinating game story ideas emerged when they involved their technical coders in the early design phase.

It’s easy to see how this could work for more than generating ideas. One of our clients, a global pharma, brought a diverse group together to work out how to improve drug cycle times. The group included people from multiple continents and functions including marketing, product management, compliance, technology, and clinical and scientific communities. The resulting innovations created a significant reduction to drug cycle times and an overall new methodology.

Encourage debate and disagreement

They say it takes a bit of grit to make a pearl. I was surprised to learn research had found an investment club drawn from people who didn’t know each other and didn’t especially get on achieved impressive profits. Much better than a group of people who knew and liked each other and generally agreed on investment choices.

That’s not to say you need to stir up dissent and incite disagreements. But make sure thinking is always challenged. Economist Tim Harford suggests prioritising ‘goal harmony’ not ‘team harmony’. That takes careful management. It means establishing ‘psychological safety’, and working to create healthy tension across a diversity of opinions. Paul Santagata, Google’s Head of Industry, offers advice for creating it. For example, he suggests getting everyone to regularly reflect on things we all have in common. With our global pharma client we focused on relationship-building to begin with rather than business results. That built trust and understanding of differences in attitudes and opinions.

Make innovation a habit

To create a culture that fosters innovation, innovation needs to become routine, the norm, your bread and butter. The opposite of what it sounds like. Start small. Researchers may disagree on how many times you need to do something for it to become a habit, but we all know you have to persevere. We saw this work well with a company aiming to develop people’s leadership skills. They gave each person involved a small task to do every day for 20 days. Repetition helped change behaviour over time, and this approach encouraged the whole group to participate.

To kick-start the change in behaviour, and help foster this culture, reward people for coming up with new ideas, successful or not. Once innovating is second nature for everyone, you won’t need to make a special case of it.

Act now but be patient

In the same way that you’re unlikely to disrupt your industry overnight, you won’t transform your organisation in one fell swoop. But take an incremental approach to fostering innovation. Before too long you’ll look back and see you have indeed changed your culture and will reap the rewards from innovation.

Frazer Bennett is chief innovation officer at PA Consulting Group

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