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3 easy ways to make your company LESS innovative

Innovation is all the rage. Companies big and small are taking steps to embody it or at least are talking about it. But what the heck is innovation anyways? My suspicion is if you asked five people, you would get five different answers. Some would view small incremental steps as innovative while some say it has to be a moonshot.

With that in mind, I will not venture to tell you what I think innovative is but I will share what I think it is not. Here are three things to keep an eye out for around your company that might signal your process may be more talk than walk.

Ideas are ignored or shunned

“But we’ve always done it this way”, “the last time we tried something like this it didn’t work” and “that would never work” are three statements, which reinforce the status quo and discourage new ideas. A former colleague of mine once told me his CEO had said, “we want you guys to be more innovative and share ideas”. A couple weeks later during a staff meeting a colleague offered up an idea to his manager, which was promptly shot out of the sky. Guess what?… That employee didn’t bother sharing ideas again because rather than be rewarded for their courage, they were embarrassed in front of colleagues. It was clearly safer to be quiet than volunteer a suggestion. You can say you want ideas but until managers are trained to know what to do with them and the culture is setup to reward idea generation rather than coveting tradition, you are likely to stall out.

"If you can’t come up with ten ideas [to a question], come up with twenty”, James Altucher

The focus is on what you sell rather than your customer

Despite terms like “client satisfaction/experience” being everywhere, too many organizations still mistake this for being friendly and helpful rather than seeking to understand their client's needs, goals and fears. Having come from banking, I can say most companies want to compete based on service rather than price and yet when you look close, you find little if anything differentiating them. A common business reflex is to want to find a way to sell to all consumer clients or all small businesses rather than a more targeted niche, which would appreciate a more tailored solution. USAA is the envy of banks because they are locked Into serving a targeted market, which keeps them from having to focus on too many different audiences. Wondering how you can being to narrow your focus? One way is to make a list of those who are not your ideal clients. Think up specific examples of times that didn't work out and detail why.

"Companies should fall in love with the problem, not the solution”, Sean Belka, Fidelity

Use constraints as an excuse rather than an opportunity

Startups are often short on capital and established companies are often burdened by bureaucracy and engrained culture. Banks are regulated by the FDIC, hospitals have JCAHO, etc. Constraints you face, whether fiscal, procedural or regulatory create the illusion that things cannot change and push most people away from not taking a risk. If you are looking for a perfect set of circumstances to be innovative under, you won’t find it because it is a myth. You need to embrace the unknown and your constraints because chances are your competitors feel the same fear you do. This of course isn’t about violating regulations or being fiscally reckless, its about taking the time to ask, “how might we [insert process here] while respecting the constraints we face?”

Saying “no” or shunning risk is much easier than leaning into the unknown. This is why talking an innovation game is much easier than putting one into practice. Most companies and people will either end up: shunning new ideas, building a product hoping to find a market or allowing internal and external constraints to keep them from asking, "how might we take an innovative leap?"

Go Forth Boldly

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