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Seven principles to ignite a culture of innovators

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Every big company was a lean and mean startup at one time. Now, confronted with digital disruption all around us, we’re all rushing to rekindle the entrepreneurial flame that first put our businesses on the map.

Every company wants to be “innovative,” but “innovation” has become an overused buzzword that has lost its meaning. Executives at companies of all sizes toss the word around as if they’re doing it. They point to experiments that range from departmental contests and monetary awards to innovation fairs, idea boxes and time to dream big. Executives at one company even dressed up as innovation superheroes in an “intervention” to rally employees around innovation.

The intentions are good, but many of these initiatives are what I call innovation tourism. They tell employees to spend a little time visiting innovation, but they lack the sustained commitment needed to disrupt and transform their entire culture.

Instead, companies should focus more on the innovator — not the innovation.

Mark Randall, inventor of Adobe Kickbox and Adobe’s VP of Innovation, puts it this way: “Innovation is about investing in your people and arming potential innovators with the resources and tools they need to make their ideas a reality. With programs that align passion with purpose, we believe anyone can be an innovator. It creates a powerful shift in the culture.”

More innovators — ones fully equipped with entrepreneurial skills, resources and support — will lead to more innovations. Focusing on the journey rather than the result is not just a leap of faith, but a proven methodology for success.

Throughout my 20-plus years working for startups and brand-name companies, my passion has remained the same: creating inspired organizations where innovation can flourish and turn disruptive concepts into emerging business models. From this experience, I have developed seven principles that turn everyday employees into rock-star entrepreneurs — ones who hatch game-changing ideas that disrupt markets and deliver new value to customers.

Corporate innovators need a grassroots disruption from “co-conspirators”

You can’t mandate innovation from the top. Vision statements aren’t enough. Ad hoc initiatives fizzle fast. To infuse an immediate and lasting entrepreneurial spirit into each employee, you first need to disrupt the culture. Innovators need an environment of support.

It takes plenty of grit and groundwork to mobilize your “co-conspirators.” Whether you work in strategy, R&D or HR, you’ll find allies all over your company — mavericks, rebels, outliers. First, look for those who don’t fit the corporate mold, but who are impassioned, inspired and motivated to radically make things better. Co-conspire with functional leads and people who later can serve as mentors or coaches.

Innovation is about investing in your people and arming potential innovators with the resources and tools they need to make their ideas a reality.
— Mark Randall, VP of Innovation, Adobe

Of course, such a massive disruption requires active commitment from the C-suite, including the CEO and head of HR. Pitch them on the value of the transformation and ensure its goals align with those of the company. Do your homework!

This collective support helps to shape and champion change. It helps to free employees to think and act more like entrepreneurs in a startup. It can even help spark that creative tension where people stretch their talents outside their comfort zones.

Innovators can come from anywhere

Engineering and R&D used to be the sole domains of innovation in tech companies. Now, however, we recognize that innovators can come from anywhere company-wide — across all roles, grades and geographies. Discover and develop them all, whether they’re millennials in marketing, mid-career in HR or long-timers in finance.

Innovations rarely — if ever — trickle down from the top ranks. Innovators typically pop up like wild flowers from the grassroots. For example, the idea for those ubiquitous Post-it notes? They came from a pair of 3M scientists who noodled on how to use a light adhesive that executives had disregarded on another project.

Innovators tap into their own passions and motivations

Ordinary people become great innovators when motivated by powerful emotions. They begin their journey by tapping into their own passions. Then, they leverage that inspiration to identify and align it with a problem to solve.

Michael Docherty, a serial entrepreneur and author of the book Collective Disruption, talks about moving from the “what” (the product) to a focus on the “why” (purpose and meaning). “Employees and entrepreneurs want to make a difference — they want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Companies must first focus innovation on their purpose and mission, or their values before features.”

Innovation is a team sport requiring different talents at different stages, but all working toward a shared goal.

As a result, companies must create a clear process to help employees discover their motivations and turn them into solutions. At Cisco, in a recent Innovate Everywhere Challenge that engaged nearly half of our 72,000-person workforce, we adapted Adobe Kickbox with industry best practices and our own experiences. Employees downloaded step-by-step guidebooks on how to identify their motivations, ideate them, test their assumptions and co-develop them with customers.

Maria Medrano, a senior manager with Cisco’s Office of Inclusion & Collaboration, gained insights about her “inner entrepreneur” from this process. “The innovation experience allowed me to find and focus on an issue I care deeply about, and team members constantly energized each other. I am not a techie, but now I know that I am an innovator who can transform things.” (Maria was on Team LifeChanger, one of three challenge winners, which is piloting collaboration solutions that help the disabled to work remotely.)

Innovators ignite more value collaborating on cross-functional teams

Nothing profound will come from engineers working with other engineers unless they involve other functions to round out the solution. To create true breakthroughs, you need to wipe out business silos and form cross-functional teams with multi-dimensional insights from marketing, strategy, finance, HR and beyond. Innovation is a team sport requiring different talents at different stages, but all working toward a shared goal. Each contributes value because of different skills, perspectives and approaches.

Jackson Bond, a successful serial entrepreneur who co-founded relayr, says it best: “Innovation, whether corporate or not, in my experience, is all about a multi-disciplinary team of individuals — designers, engineers, MBAs — collaborating tightly together, pushing boundaries, moving fast, focused on a shared goal, and iterating on constant feedback loops from many, many mentors. It is the opposite of just an idea, or just an individual, building in isolation.”

Overwhelming research and my own experience validate that inclusive and diverse teams create the most transformative value.

Innovators need direction, strategy and resources to guide the way

The biggest mistake companies make to jumpstart innovation is their failure to provide clear guidance. Nearly everyone I know has a brilliant idea for the next big app, but few know how to bring it to life.

First, companies must set out a grand vision or purpose that every employee can recite on why it’s vital to become an innovator. I’m reminded of the NASA executive visiting a facility who walked up to a janitor and asked, “What is your job?” The janitor replied, “To put a man on the moon.”

Mentors encourage team-based approaches where every voice counts.

Second, innovators must be clear about the strategic focus — markets, technologies, services, business models. Third, and most often overlooked, is the need to give innovators time and get out of their way, let them experiment and learn from both their successes and mistakes.

Connection is paramount. Remember to leverage communications, collaboration platforms and experiences to connect employees with each other and the outside world — not all ideas are born within your company. Open collaboration platforms also enable employees to share ideas and interact, make things transparent, remove politics and equalize the playing field, which is essential.

Mentors and coaches are more important than managers

Show the innovation way with mentors and coaches — not traditional managers. Mentors and coaches, both inside and outside the company, must replace managers to guide cross-functional teams. Traditional managers are often roadblocks to innovation. They slow progress by focusing on hierarchy, top-down decision making, rigid deadlines and short-term outcomes.

Mentors encourage team-based approaches where every voice counts, and they help to clear political or other roadblocks. They don’t direct; they advise how teams can move forward collectively to overcome technology, customer or market hurdles — and then back off!

Outside mentors also bring fresh and realistic perspectives. Bond, who has been both a mentor and received mentorship, credits his current company’s success to outside advisors. “Whether in a startup or large company, you will need outside innovation advisors to create a strong, dynamic and supportive environment where innovation can thrive in all its chaos and changing nature.”

Empower employees to experiment, take risks and fail

To create game-changers, employee innovators must feel empowered to brainstorm, experiment and make decisions — without judgement. Companies must give up control and level the playing field so teams value everyone’s idea. To thrive, team members must hold each other accountable while driving to their goal. Netflix and TED are two companies that exemplify the democratization of decisions.

And while anathema to corporate thinking, failure is an option. Failure almost always leads to success, and should be celebrated. Fast failure can eliminate wasteful time on projects, improve efficiency and pinpoint new options for success.

As Docherty puts it, “The key (for innovation) is to not try to get it completely right the first time, but to try things quickly and adjust as we go. That also means we need to manage expectations along the way.” For example, it took Thomas Edison more than 10,000 tries to perfect the light bulb, after which he famously stated, “I have not failed. I have just found 9,999 ways that do not work.”

Summing it up

Gartner predicts that while 75 percent of businesses are preparing to become digital companies, only 30 percent of these efforts will be successful. The John M. Olin School of Business at Washington University also predicts that in 10 years more than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies will no longer exist. Don’t be one of them.

To paraphrase former Intel CEO Andy Grove: “Only the innovative will survive.” Companies must fully commit to disruptive change, ignite innovation across the enterprise and nourish a startup culture where employees can become entrepreneurs.

Focus on the innovator — not the innovation.

Featured Image: Intel Free Press/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE