4 examples of how to nurture innovation

Remember when innovation only happened because someone stopped playing by the rules? Not now. Innovation is fast becoming part of business as usual. It doesn’t matter what size the business is. Micro business. Vast multinational. Somewhere between the two. They all want to create cultures of innovation.

Could you do with some inspiration? Then you might like these four awesome ideas taken from the success stories of companies whose innovative cultures are thriving.

Give employees unstructured thinking time

The idea of giving people a chunk of time to just kick ideas around and carry out innovation projects might seem strange but that’s exactly what business and financial software company Intuit has done. Employees are trained as innovation catalysts. Then they apply those skills to their own teams as well as spending up to 10% of their time coaching, mentoring and inspiring employees outside the team. Intuit also provides time to employees who want to work on their own innovation projects.

I love the principle behind all this, a principle that can be applied in pretty much any company – give employees permission to experiment with ‘unstructured thinking’ time.

Let innovation get messy

We generally try to impose some order on the way we do things and that’s understandable. But Stanford professor Bob Sutton points out that when it comes to innovation, or at least the early stages of it, trying to get rid of the messy parts is not a good approach. Instead, he says, an ability to accept the random and haphazard nature of innovation and to navigate a way through it is an invaluable part of nurturing creativity.

In this article, he quotes Bill Coyne, formerly of 3M, who says ‘don’t try to control or make safe the fumbling, panicky, glorious adventure of discovery. Long-term growth depends on innovation, and innovation isn’t neat. We stumble on many of our best discoveries. If you want to follow the rapidly moving leading edge, you must learn to live on your feet. And you must be willing to make necessary, healthy stumbles.’

Forget corporate communication – think person to person conversation

MIT Professor Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland has researched into how ideas flow through groups and the effect that flow has on productivity – a concept he calls social physics. He talks about the importance of providing tools to enable spontaneous peer to peer communications alongside the opportunities to work together physically – that’s how good ideas spread.

It’s an approach supported by other research, including the cases studies mentioned in this report, showing smart business leaders are engaging with employees in a style more like a regular person-to-person conversation rather than a ‘series of commands from on high’.

Be hungry for feedback – every bit of it

Great ideas cannot come to life without feedback from others. Whether it’s from employees, customers or suppliers, every scrap of feedback helps with shaping ideas.

With their ‘prototype without constraints’ approach, Nike is one company that’s embraced the idea of putting their ideas out there, learning from feedback then working to making their products cutting edge.

A desire for ongoing feedback means never accepting the status quo and constantly innovating instead. Given that acting on feedback can mean a huge number of iterations before something’s spot on – it took 195 tries using the reinvented manufacturing process before Nike’s Flyknit Racer was ready to launch – it also means being tough and tenacious.