Apr 17, 2019

Better innovation in one simple step

We’ve all read those articles about an innovation culture. They admonish us to create a space where ideas flow freely and the best ones win. They tell us why innovation drives growth and they promise us that our companies can be innovative too. But when it comes down to giving businesses actionable tips to implement, most of these articles are barren on details. Which, at the end of the day, isn’t good for all that much. After all, any company can innovate but not every company does. So what separates those who do?

Recently, we had the pleasure of co-hosting a webinar with Julia Markish, Director of Employee Practice at Medallia, for HR.com. Julia was a great guest and we loved everything she said, but there was something that really struck with us during the course of the webinar: she had real-world experience. She had real-world steps to take. She wasn’t like those fluffly articles we described in our intro. Julia had the receipts.

Now, we’d like to stress that none of this is to say that culture isn’t important. It certainly is. Companies with rigid, top-down structures will inherently be less innovative than those where every employee feels valued and where ideas win, not titles. But even in those companies where creativity flows freely, they sometimes miss a key component to executing on those innovative ideas.

That component? Governance.

By governance, we mean systems that capture, grade, and monitor the life of new ideas, strictures that allow both employees and upper management to view and score concepts, to identify the true game-changers, and to understand the ROI when all is said is done. Because it’s one thing to have a good idea. It’s a whole other to execute on it.

What exactly does this look like in practice? Let’s use an example. Say your company does quarterly hackathons. You gather cross-functional teams to brainstorm and prototype or wireframe their ideas. Your company spends two days on these projects and the teams present ideas afterwards to the entire staff. The energy in the room is great. There’s real momentum. But then what? What are you doing with all these ideas?

This is where governance comes in. There’s no one-size-fits all strategy to capture and monitor these ideas, but rather several smart ways of doing so. You can do something as simple as holding a vote for the idea that’s resonating best with your group. Your exec team can sit down and carefully grade them over a lunch meeting. You can implement an up- or down-vote system and encourage every employee to read about each idea and mark the ones that resonate most with them.

The point is you need to act. What’s more than that: you need to show your employees that you’re acting, that you take the ideas seriously, that there are ones that will actually see the light of day. Nothing’s more frustrating that having a truly great idea no one has the time or energy or desire to implement. It can turn a culture of innovation into one of stagnation. It can ruin momentum.

It’s also important to note that voting on the good ideas is just step one–essentially, you’ve simply identified which innovations you’re going to move forward with. But if a non-engineer had the suggestion of a great new product feature and a bunch of your sales team voted on it, how do they know it’s moving forward?

You need continuing governance for this. You need transparency. Some system where employees can follow along and watch the great ideas grow from an off-handed comment to a fully-realized project. You can use your existing systems–say, whatever performance tracking or task management system you use–or just do something simple like a weekly email or shared spreadsheet where people can actively monitor the progress of their ideas. Seeing them become real drastically increases buy-in for everyone and helps foster that illusive culture of innovation to boot.

Now, we all know innovation doesn’t just come out of hackathons or other company- or team-wide events, so your governance systems should be able to capture those spur of the moment ideas an engineer gets in the shower or a new product feature borne from a particularly lively scrum. What you need to avoid–and avoid it all costs–is having a suggestion box that nobody checks. There’s nothing quite as demotivating as feeling like your creativity goes into a hole, never to be seen from again.

In the end, systems of governance form a virtuous circle with innovative cultures. The ideas come, they’re executed upon, and the whole process is transparent and open. Seeing a co-worker’s concept blossom into a real product feature helps show everyone in your company that yes, you do take these ideas seriously. In fact, it shows that you value feedback and leadership from everyone and that it’s the idea–not who came up with it–that truly matters. And it’s important to note we said “show” there. Because for a lot of companies, they’re just telling their employees that they have an innovation culture. They know it’s attractive to new hires and that people, inherently, want to be heard and make a difference. But showing goes a lot further. It’s not idle lip-service. People see through that.

Admittedly, governance isn’t exactly the sexiest of concepts. But it’s the one thing many companies aren’t doing with their potential innovations. And because of it, they’re missing a lot of growth–and a lot of enthusiasm.

If you missed the webinar that inspired this post, you can head here to watch a replay. Enjoy!

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