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How To Help Innovation Grow Up At Your Organization

No matter whether your company is a behemoth like GE or an upstart like Airbnb, the key is defining your approach and sticking to it.

How To Help Innovation Grow Up At Your Organization
[Photo: Flickr user jim simonson]

While Silicon Valley is well recognized as a bedrock of technology innovation, it’s a myth the magic only happens within startups and out of a garage. Enterprises are indisputably better positioned to innovate at scale, in part given their financial and human capital.

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The trick is for the big boys to take the leap. In doing so, they will understand and foster the approach that best fits the business.

Innovation At Scale

Naysayers maintain that large companies struggle with innovation once they reach a certain size, losing their creative DNA along the way. I’d argue the opposite. There are examples throughout time of brands that have instead leveraged size, influence, and a history of innovation to radically develop new lines of profitable business.

Take GE, one of the greatest innovation factories in the world. The company’s value rose 4,000% under Jack Welch’s long tenure at the helm. It’s always been a brand willing to take risks, bringing us the convenience of electric toasters, oven ranges, and refrigerators in its earlier days. But GE also deftly branched out into new industries, creating the first U.S. jet engine, LEDs, and health care technologies such as the MRI. It even possesses leadership positions in green tech and biofuel.

GE may very well be the “renaissance man” of the corporate world.

The lesson? Just because you make widgets today doesn’t mean you have to only make widgets tomorrow. Large organizations need to explore secondary or tertiary markets. Determine how and where your core competency plays to your benefit, and take a logical, yet bold, leap that will be accretive to the core.

Driving Innovation A Different Way

While GE’s engineering prowess is no doubt its driver, equally transformative impact can come in other forms, like business model innovation or reimagining how revenue is created and collected. For instance, the introduction of SaaS distribution revolutionized enterprise software, commoditizing pricing and delivery, and shifting the burden of IT support costs from the end user to the technology provider.

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Similarly, while still in the startup phase though growing rapidly, sharing-economy companies like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb have forever turned the transportation and hospitality industries on their heads with innovative and democratized business models. They’ve greatly increased access to lower-cost alternatives and brought more choice to consumers, as well as created new revenue streams for the average Joe.

Nurturing An Innovation Culture

No matter how you choose to make your mark, to truly be an innovative enterprise, the DNA must be embedded in the culture. Whether it gets there deliberately or organically doesn’t much matter: Both can lead to success. The key is defining your approach and sticking to it.

A systematic approach to innovation requires a purposeful strategy to set a process behind the practice. The Rubicon Project takes on a unique yet deliberate approach by managing corporate culture like a product, complete with a road map and tangible goals. Its culture road map contains 11 key values, with innovation topping the list. Culture program releases have a set timeline for launching to hold leadership accountable, and to help track a cultural and innovation program’s key performance indicator.

Alternately, ideas within the enterprise can grow organically from anywhere–engineering, management, HR, even finance. While innovation doesn’t just happen, often an element of serendipity can drive an idea forward. In order for organically conceived ideas to take hold, the company’s culture must be conducive, treating every contributor as a partner in the process.

As a way to tap ideas from all possible sources, Adobe recently made innovation kits available to any employee within the company. The kits are designed to empower individuals with everything they need to pursue a new idea they’re passionate about, walking them through ideation, feedback, and, ultimately, beta testing with actual customers. This makes the creative process accessible to all, with tangible exercises, suggestions, and checklists to help structure the thought process. The program was recently open-sourced so other companies can consider a similar approach without starting from scratch.

A Roofer, Carpenter, And Inline Skater Enter A . . .

Warren G. Bennis, a pioneer in the field of leadership studies, said: “Innovation–any new idea–by definition will not be accepted at first. It takes repeated attempts, endless demonstrations, and monotonous rehearsals before innovation can be accepted and internalized by an organization. This requires courageous patience.”

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Since great ideas can come from anywhere, consider cross-functional teams to spark new ideas, pull from outside a direct business unit, or solicit ideas from outside your company. A Harvard Business Review article from November 2014 argued the best ideas could come from outside your industry.

Three European economics professors conducted a study of roofers, carpenters, and inline skaters to collect ideas on how to improve the comfort of their respective safety gear. What’s fascinating is each group came up with better ideas to improve gear from the other two fields than its own.

Instilling innovation deep into your organization’s culture requires patience, persistence, and a long-term commitment to get it right. Management should work to redefine the behaviors recognized, rewarded, and promoted among employees. Are those behaviors linked to innovation? If not, you may need to refocus values, or perhaps create your own innovation road map to drive and manage the change you seek to create.

Aseem Chandra is vice president of Adobe Experience Manager and Adobe Target for Adobe’s digital marketing business. In his role, Chandra is the general manager of these product lines, bringing 20-plus years’ experience in general technology management, marketing, partnering, and mergers and acquisitions.