Although many companies talk about the importance of innovation and list it as an important value, few companies in any industry truly walk their innovation talk. The few who do consistently create innovative products and solutions. How can the other companies — those that say they want to innovate, but don’t — become innovative?
Innovation in companies springs from five dimensions of organisational innovation: leadership at all levels; commitment; collaboration and communication; culture; and structure, systems and processes. The dimension that most distinguishes genuinely innovative companies from the wannabes is their commitment to innovation.
What is commitment to innovation? When people speak of commitment, they usually talk about their dedication. That dedication is expressed by devoting resources to that commitment, which is a voluntary restriction of freedom to use those resources in other ways.
Companies that commit to innovation dedicate themselves to becoming — and then being — innovative organisations. This means taking on the necessary financial and non-financial obligations, and this commitment of resources — financial and human capital — means that those resources are not available for other activities.
Why is commitment to innovation necessary? Talk is cheap; it’s acting on your words that creates value and produces results. It’s easy to say that you’re committed to innovation, but it’s only when you devote people, time and money to innovation that you actually become committed.
The amount of resources that a company commits to innovation is the best indicator of how serious its leaders are about building a creative company. As the management guru Peter Drucker said, “Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes; but no plans.”
Is your company committed to innovation? My company helps others in committing to innovation, but before we do so, we perform an audit of their existing capacity for innovation. These audits focus on eight hard-to-fake facets of that capacity. I will discuss three of them in this column and the remainder in the next column.
1. Show visible leadership commitment (budgets, personal support and time): In innovative companies, all levels of management clearly articulate and visibly demonstrate their support for innovation. They act as sponsors for new innovation projects. They commit time and actively involve themselves in innovation. They personally support innovation, and make sure that everyone sees them doing so.
Questions: How about your organisation? Does your management talk about supporting innovation, and if so, do they actually provide concrete support? Do they make financial commitments to innovation projects? How much of their time do the top executives in your organisation commit to support innovation initiatives?
2. Commit time to innovation: Research studies led by Harvard’s Teresa Amabile confirmed that creativity drops when employees are permanently stressed at work and feel like they’re on a treadmill. When all of an employee’s work time is spent on routine work, responding to ad hoc requests from others, or in crisis mode, there is no time left to be creative and innovative.
In contrast, innovative companies ensure — either formally or informally — that normal work activities leave employees enough time to work on innovation initiatives of their own choosing. The most innovative companies, such as 3M or Google, make this official, encouraging their employees to use a part of their work time — typically 10-25% — to pursue pet innovation projects, either alone or in a team.
Questions: How about your organisation? Do your employees and managers feel constant stress? Given the overall amount of work that needs to be done, do you have barely enough people to do it? Or do people have some time and encouragement to work on innovation projects that they care about and which serve the interests of the business?
3. Commit to active, extensive human capital development: Innovative organisations commit resources to developing their employees, and senior management sees that development as an investment in the potential of the organisation. Thus, training, coaching, and other human capital development — perhaps including scholarships for master’s or PhD degrees — are offered to all staff, no matter their place in the organisation.
Questions: Does your company see human capital development as a short-term cost or a long-term investment? How much money does it commit to training and coaching? Is training offered only to elite management and key technical personnel, or is it made available to all?
The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Commitment is an act, not a word.” In the next column, we will discuss the remaining five factors useful in evaluating how well your company acts on its stated commitment to innovation.
Dr Detlef Reis is the founding director and chief ideator of Thinkergy Limited (www.Thinkergy.com), the ideation and innovation company in Asia. He is also a university lecturer in business creativity and innovation leadership at the College of Management, Mahidol University (www.cmmu.mahidol.ac.th). He can be reached at email@example.com