Enabling Innovation “On Demand”

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Encouraging new ideas from employees is nothing new. Our parents and grandparents had suggestion boxes — we have formal “innovation programs.” We can all agree, innovation continues to be vital in almost every industry to continue to engage our customers and challenge our competitors. But what many still struggle with is how to make innovation a part of the culture.

Some have tried incentive programs, others have assigned dedicated “thinking time” to encourage innovation, even building dedicated creative spaces in their offices. Leaders have explained that all ideas are welcome and have encouraged their teams to feel comfortable sharing suggestions for improvement.

All of these activities may help … but the biggest opportunity to enable innovation is to trigger ideas based on our brain’s unrelenting desire to fix things.

Necessity is the mother of invention, after all, which is to say that most people come up with their best ideas when they’re forced to fix something that needs fixing. It can be helpful for leaders or innovation teams (especially if they’re suffering from “innovator’s block,” the dreaded equivalent to writer’s block) to start by identifying problems and then brainstorming ways to solve them.

Here are some approaches to identify the problems you and your employees might want to take on:

Find the lightbulb in the storm cloud

Listening to feedback, and especially any complaints, from customers is a great place to discover an innovation project — but be prepared to dig deeper. Instead of responding to a complaint with a statement, make yourself (or your team) respond to it with questions. For example, if a customer complains that packaging you designed is too hard to open, you might be tempted to say, “Well, the reason we package it this way is because …”

Answering with a statement immediately makes you sound defensive — and appear unwilling to make the situation better. Instead, use the complaint as the impetus for asking probing questions:

Why is it hard for this particular customer to open our packaging?
Have you noticed all the arthritis/aging-friendly packaging lately? Guess where those innovations came from — someone listening to a complaint like this.

What makes it hard to open our packaging?
It could be that the cardboard box has more “glue shots” than necessary and reducing them can cut costs while making the box easier to open. Another example is anti-theft packaging: if you make your product unappealing to shoplifters as well as your customers, it might be time for another anti-theft solution.

These are just two examples — in a real problem-solving scenario, these questions would lead to others and, ideally, to an innovative solution your team had never considered. Remember to include both the usual and the unusual suspects in any brainstorming session. Involving team members from sales, customer service, manufacturing and quality — essentially everyone who designs and delivers the product — brings different perspectives on why things are the way they are — and what possibilities exist to make them better. It’s also a great way to educate employees about what happens beyond their own areas of contribution.

Process innovation — finding the thorns in peoples’ sides

Improving process efficiency can save time and money and can ultimately have an impact on the satisfaction levels of both employees and customers. Even a simple question — “what do you find frustrating while you’re trying to get your work done?” — can reveal a critical process or system that needs improvement.

A simple example: when the marketing team is frustrated because the lawyers keep rejecting their campaigns that they’ve been working on for months, the solution can be as simple as inviting a legal review at an earlier stage of campaign development. The marketing team can get feedback before their time is invested, and by learning why the legal team has concerns about what they developed, they might be able to come up with a compromise … or acquire a working knowledge about what might or might not work when they launch the next campaign.

Think about the present

Many companies do a SWOT analysis (listing Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats). While sharing the insights from this strategic activity might push the “transparency” envelope a bit for some, leaders who do can often spark creative thinking in their innovation teams. Here are some examples of questions arising from a SWOT analysis:

  • Strengths — What do we do well that can be applied elsewhere in our business?
  • Weaknesses — What creates these weak points and what can we do to address them?
  • Opportunities — Are these opportunities exclusive for us, or are they also opportunities for our competition? If so, what can we do to be more proactive/aggressive and get ahead of the game?
  • Threats — We can’t always prevent bad things from happening, but what can we put in place to respond quickly when they do happen?

Think about the future

Here’s a way to have a little fun while coming up with more “out there” thinking. Invite a team to imagine itself 10 (or 20, or 30) years in the future. Start with something lighthearted, just imagining what that future will be like. What will be different about society and your customers, and how will these changes affect their experience and your company? What do you need to change to be ready for that? Prepare for a fun exchange of possibilities, and remember sometimes things said to be funny can lead to a real-world innovation.

Practice makes perceptive

Think of the first time you went to a fancy restaurant. Whether you were five or fifty when this happened, you probably spent much of the time observing and imitating others to know what to do and, as a result, weren’t really able to enjoy the food. The next time, you were more comfortable (and maybe did a little research on what fork to use for which course) and could not only enjoy the experience more, you could help your friend who was obviously experiencing his or her first time.

The same is true for innovation sessions. At first, a meeting in which you ask people for innovative ideas may seem intimidating. Be patient and give everyone multiple opportunities to learn what’s expected of them in such meetings, perhaps first by being an observer, knowing they will have an opportunity to come back and participate more actively. Make it clear they can contribute ideas outside the scheduled innovation session — that they can come back a day later or the next week with follow-up ideas. Sometimes the best ideas come when we’ve had time to think about it “offline” … it certainly can make the morning commute more productive.

Innovation in action

If you would like to read more about the kind of innovation sessions that Cobalt helps facilitate, check out the Strategic Meetings page on our website.

As a strategic communications agency serving science- and R&D-driven organizations, we specialize in highly technical markets where complex ideas and information must be conveyed with clarity. Our team includes writers, designers, strategists and content architects, all working together to help you reach — and engage — your internal and external audiences.

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