All the disruption we experienced in 2020 – and will continue to face in 2021 – means we need to be constantly innovating to adapt to change.
Innovation isn’t something you can leave to an R&D team, and it isn’t something you do “when things quieten down”. It’s simply about being proactive when dealing with change.
Innovation needs three things.
A fire needs three elements (sometimes called “the fire triangle”): fuel, heat, and oxygen. The fuel burns, the heat starts the fire, and oxygen provides energy for it to keep burning.
Lighting the fire of innovation under your team members uses these same three components (metaphorically):
- Create the space (fuel): Create an environment that allows and encourages innovation.
- Ignite a spark (heat): Don’t just leave idea-generation to chance; prompt it by asking interesting questions that encourage thinking in different ways.
- Fan the flames (oxygen): Recognise and reward the ideas, and then act on them.
These three stages work together to foster innovation in your team. You first create a supportive environment for new ideas, prompt team members to share those ideas, and then act on them. That demonstrates your commitment, which in turn encourages them to suggest even more ideas.
This is a simple concept, but with a lot of depth. When you consider what action to take now, consider all three areas.
Start with the right environment.
In particular, if you think your team doesn’t have a safe and constructive environment that encourages innovation, start by creating that environment for them in small ways. It’s not enough to just tell them to be more innovative. Look for ways to give them permission, focus and time. For example, set aside ten minutes in your regular staff meeting for sharing innovative ideas.
Direct the innovation.
The next step is to direct the innovation (ignite a spark) by asking questions that generate different ways of thinking – for example:
- “How could we make this (faster/cheaper/obsolete)?”
- “What are other industries doing?”
- “How could we involve our customers more?”
- “What if [this important thing we’re doing now] was made illegal tomorrow?”
Innovative ideas can come from anywhere, so don’t think too much about asking specific questions in a particular order. Choose them at random, share them with the team, and see where they lead.
Then, be proactive in putting the ideas into action. Even a small action that creates a small change is better than none at all, especially if you’re creating an innovative space for the first time. If an idea creates a big change, opt for that idea first, because it will help build momentum.
Innovation is an ongoing process, not an event. It’s better to start small with a process you can repeat rather than a grand one-off event that quickly loses momentum.