In today’s fluid, fiercely competitive business environment, many organizations continuously strive to stay ahead of the curve. They know success requires an ongoing commitment to creativity and innovation. But breathing life into an innovation management strategy can be a complex, time-consuming challenge. What helps market leaders sustain an edge? Let’s take a closer look…
Too Often, Innovation Goals Don’t Match Reality
Why is innovation so crucial? It enhances productivity and profitability. What’s more, it can translate into significant long-term cost efficiencies. For example, according to McKinsey, innovative companies generate 2.4 times more profit, on average, than their less innovative counterparts.
But despite these promising statistics, most companies face a significant gap between innovation aspirations and reality. In fact, more than 80% of business leaders say innovation is one of their top three priorities — yet only 10% are satisfied with their current level of innovation performance.
What can organizations do to close this gap? Effective solutions depend on the people behind the innovation management process.
Managers Are the Secret
Fostering a culture of innovation involves more than just lofty aspirations. It also requires managers who are equipped with the right skills and resources to empower others. As the fundamental link between senior leadership and staff, managers are naturally positioned to foster creativity and innovation.
6 Keys to Innovation Management Success
At leading-edge companies, employees are empowered to experiment with new processes, tools, and services. They may explore a new product line, enhance the customer experience, or develop a tool to improve operational efficiency.
Regardless of the challenge at hand, people must feel ready to respond and supported in their efforts. This is where managers play an integral role in shaping innovation culture. Here are six innovation management steps that make a measurable difference:
1. Set the Right Tone
Innovation thrives when teams feel confident and competent enough to experiment, challenge the status quo, and embrace new ideas, processes, and technologies. This requires functional expertise and awareness of the organization, as well as a spirit of discovery. It also requires a nurturing environment that fosters psychological safety and encourages the free flow of ideas.
But perhaps most importantly, innovation demands a certain appetite for risk — with the reassurance that people can fail fast, learn from experience, and build on that foundation. Managers can set the tone by emphasizing each of these success factors.
2. Ensure That Employees Have Time to Contribute
Time is another consideration. No one can engage in innovation if they’re juggling endless to-do lists and reacting to requests that constantly come their way. Managers can make innovation a priority by allocating sufficient time for team members to stay on top of relevant trends, challenge tradition, investigate core issues, generate ideas, and explore solutions with others.
This is the case at 3M, a company known for its game-changing products. 3M’s long-standing culture of innovation encourages all employees to spend 15% of their work week proactively cultivating and pursuing “innovative ideas that excite them.”
3. Develop Strong Skills
Managers must come to the table with solid innovation management capabilities. After all, motivating employees to reach outside of their comfort zone isn’t easy. It requires emotional intelligence, empathy, and exceptional communication skills. Effective coaching skills are useful when encouraging people to innovate throughout their careers. And entrepreneurial skills come into play when spotting promising opportunities and helping employees find the determination and resourcefulness they need to push the envelope.
Smart companies know the breadth and depth of skills their managers possess. But many employers lack this kind of comprehensive insight. If you need a clearer, more complete view of manager skills across your organization, an inventory can help. First, identify and prioritize skills that matter most to you. Next, audit managers and document their skill sets. Then analyze this data to look for patterns that can help you find strengths and weaknesses.
Skills-Based Development in Practice
Although skills mapping is an important part of the planning process, innovation really comes to life when managers and their employees put these skills into practice. This is why organizations like Unilever and IBM have adopted a skills-based approach to workforce development, planning, and decision making. These companies rely on skills to guide key all kinds of workforce decisions, including hiring and promotions. This frees them from focusing too heavily on limited roles and job-specific siloes. It also enables them to adapt and innovate more swiftly than industry counterparts.
At Unilever, this skills-based approach takes various forms, including a talent marketplace where both permanent employees and “U-Workers” can participate in projects and tasks across the organization, based on their skills. U-Work is a contract work program that provides participants with a guaranteed minimum monthly retainer and enables them to work in a flexible way they prefer.
Meanwhile at IBM, half of its U.S.-based roles no longer require a degree. The company is also investing in upskilling veterans and neurodiverse individuals to develop high-demand skills the company needs.
Results from early adopters of skills-based strategies are promising. For instance, among companies that rely on skills to match people with work opportunities, 26% are better able to anticipate future disruptions, 26% have a more agile workforce, and 26% are more innovative.
4. Let Data Lead the Way
Many organizations are already sitting on a wealth of employee skill data, so implementing skills-based approaches is faster and easier than ever. This data is also an invaluable source of information for managers who are building innovative teams.
Skills data is available from HR, learning, and recruitment systems, as well as work-related platforms like project management tools and document systems. By combining and analyzing data about the work and learning people complete every day, along with their resumes, skills assessments, performance reviews, and feedback from others, managers can get a comprehensive view of their team’s skills and potential.
This kind of skills intelligence makes it possible to identify candidates who could complement a cross-functional innovation team, or expose gaps that may hinder future innovation. In short, it helps managers lead innovation with better insight, conduct career conversations with greater precision, and understand how disruption is shaping their team’s talent requirements.
5. Ensure Everyone is Onboard
Developing a culture of innovation requires buy-in at every level. Celebrating successful solutions and their impact on the business can boost everyone’s enthusiasm for future innovation.
Recognition from managers is particularly powerful. However, it doesn’t need to include a tangible or financial reward. Simply being acknowledged by a senior leader makes a memorable difference, especially if you spotlight employee innovation efforts at team or company meetings. Also, to motivate particularly strong contributors, senior leaders could offer mentoring support. This, in turn, stretches employee innovation skills and experiences that can pay-off in the future.
Enabling team members to share ideas and suggestions can be a highly effective “grassroots” way to support innovation culture. It can be as simple as adding several minutes to your team’s standing meeting agenda.
Or you can schedule standalone brainstorming or knowledge-sharing sessions. In this case, you’ll want to establish a process to ensure that all ideas are heard and acknowledged. Using a “yes, AND” tactic tells employees that their input is welcome and leaders will seriously consider its potential to add business value.
6. Clarify Your Agenda With an Innovation Framework
Interesting ideas are everywhere. But smart organizations don’t blindly pursue all possibilities. Instead, they build a blueprint that helps teams generate ideas, evaluate their potential, and implement solutions that deliver the best benefits for your organization.
This blueprint is also called an innovation framework. By consistently following these guidelines, you can keep resources focused on results that matter, rather than creating distractions.
Evaluating a new idea against your team objectives and business goals ensures that it will have a desirable impact on the top and bottom line. Alternatively, innovating within a need or known constraint can provide solutions to challenges you face.
For instance, the Covid pandemic led to numerous innovations in remote work, education, telehealth, vaccine technology, virtual restaurant services, and more. Now, many manufacturers and retailers are evaluating their innovation pipelines for ideas to tackle the cost of living crisis affecting many regions of the world.
There’s a mistaken belief that innovation is a costly, large-scale endeavor. In fact, it thrives when nurtured from the ground up. Even the smallest pilot projects can yield substantial long-term business impact. So, when planning a pilot project, managers can review team skills to be sure they assign the right people, with the right skills, to the right challenge, at the right time.
Then, managers can move teams forward through this innovation process framework by identifying and addressing one business problem at a time, and building momentum as they tackle subsequent challenges.
Moving Forward With Innovation Management
Every innovation effort begins with a single step. And every small step towards building an innovative business has the potential to create a significant impact in the long-run.
This is why innovative organizations equip managers with all the skills and resources they need to help teams thrive in the face of change.
Want to achieve better business outcomes? Support your managers, so they can embrace a skills-based approach, empower people to experiment, and nurture a culture where innovation is celebrated in all its forms. This will position your organization for long-term success.