Right now technology companies are facing the challenge of maintaining a culture of innovation while combating the negative effects of bad economic news, staff cuts and reduced perks. Through the recession, we need to not only retain our best and brightest talent, but also feed a culture of continuous innovation with that talent.
Because, when the economy eventually strengthens, it won’t be business as usual. Recession leads to the birth of disruptive ways of doing business that create value and change the market landscape. Technology leaders need to find ways to drive disruption incrementally because big ideas happen a little bit at a time, every day.
Creating an environment of innovation from the bottom up is one of the most important steps a manager can take. Despite an uncertain market, managers must be open to creative risk-taking, as it is essential to the development of new ideas. A culture where innovation is rewarded and there is no penalty for failure will generate the most and best ideas.
Of course, not all ideas will work and some might fail disastrously, but without encouragement from management, the best ideas will never even make it out of the gate. Besides, a down economy is the time when a crazy new idea is most needed.
Providing a framework for innovation
Bottom-up innovation doesn’t just happen on its own. The manager of a team is the founding vote for innovation. Managers need to provide a framework for employees to innovate by giving them the time, resources, social structure and support to champion good ideas.
As a manager, you can foster selection of the right partnership between people and practices to support and execute specific types of innovation by:
1. Empowering everyone to become innovation activists,
2. Helping people develop skills to recognize, appreciate and bubble up innovation opportunities-no matter how small or big the opportunity appears to be in the beginning,
3. Harnessing social systems to develop the culture and competencies to make innovation happen in their area of responsibility,
4. Giving employees a voice to ideas and allocate time toward their development, and
5. Reapplying innovation across the boundaries.
As a manager, your weekly one-on-one meetings with employees are a good occasion to reinforce your founding vote for innovation. Discuss new ideas and explore how they might fit into other projects and the individual’s workload. Help people set aside time for activities related to fostering new ideas and to find resources outside of the department to spur creativity.
Forming intra-company partnerships and facilitating cross-pollination between different groups in the organization is an important component of exploring potential innovations and encouraging their development. If your engineering team isn’t in the habit of collaborating on cross-functional teams, create occasions that bring different groups together for problem solving. This collective creativity can provide the jump-start needed for more technical innovators.
Encourage your team to work quickly, fail fast and, most importantly, learn from the failures. Innovation is an iterative process. All innovations start small and become big gradually by learning from failures and successes. Give the innovator immediate resources to build prototypes, and test them by providing access to designers, area experts, product marketing and customers. Don’t make new ideas go through an extensive vetting process. Quick trials and limited tests can give everyone the data they need to determine if the idea can go to the next level.
Adopt a Strategic Methodology to Guide Innovation
Adopt a Strategic Methodology to Guide Innovation
You may want to consider adopting one of the strategic methodologies developed to guide the innovation cycle in your organization. There are plenty of resources freely available on the Web to help managers to get started. For example, I follow the Competing Values Framework (CVF) from Jeff DeGraff, Clinical Professor of Management and Organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, which advocates ambidextrous leadership through four competing values.
The realities of the recession have certainly raised stress levels for everyone. But if people are engaged, are generating creative ideas and seeing the results of their innovation quickly, then job satisfaction and productivity will be high. To drive value creation forward, develop a tactile system where people feel the impact of their innovation quickly.
Share the long and short-term goals of the company, and let each member of your team know how they can help to achieve these goals. When employees feel that they are an integral part of the company’s success, they will be even more committed. People work in a technology company to increase the value of the company and thereby increase value for themselves. If there’s a system to support innovation, people will take ownership for driving the value of the company.
It is a sad reality that, in this economy, many a company will reduce commitment to innovation-the very key to thriving in a tough economy. Yet the recession, however challenging, is only temporary. Every manager has the opportunity to empower the bottom-up innovation we all need to drive recovery-and competitive advantage-for our companies.
While many managers try to focus on cost cutting and improving margins, smart managers know that great companies can be built in a recession. They know that the secret to building a great company is to focus on the innovation cycle. The innovation cycle is an upward growth spiral.
Innovation creates product differentiation, differentiation creates significantly higher margins, and higher margins create a fund for further innovations-snowballing into a healthy, continual growth cycle. Empowering people to become innovation activists is the key to not only surviving these economic challenges, but also emerging stronger.