The serious business of free thinking

The serious business of free thinking

The key to innovation is thinking creatively, says Jade Software chief innovation officer John Ascroft. But the trick, he says, is unleashing that creativity.

I'm fascinated by the way technological progress changes our world. Even as our lives are made easier, people are caught out and entire economic sectors are overturned. The next Uber is out there, but so is the next Kodak.

Innovative thinking is your best insurance against this unpredictable future but, honestly, are you confident about facing uncertainty? This is a question of business culture: encouraging unexpected thinking, knowing how to assess new ideas, and having robust structures that bring the best of them to life.

When you get it right you equip people to look for new opportunities, and you get better at spinning up new products and services. The potential payoff is huge.

Innovation occurs by changing how people work and embedding the right process around new ideas.

Short events like hack days might be fun, but they often pigeonhole innovative work as a break from reality. Longer programs can feel too much like every day work - new things get built, but the process lacks excitement and doesn’t entice anyone to search for the next great idea.

There's a balance between making innovation fun and showing how it’s important for business. The ingredients you need to mix are:

● Giving people time and space to collaborate and think.

● Encouraging teamwork and new partnerships.

● Drawing as much of the company as you can into a fun event.

● Spurring a touch of friendly competition.

● Proving serious managerial commitment.

After four in-house iterations of our eight-week long ‘Thinkubator’ program, we’ve seen a definite improvement in our culture. Fresh thinking comes more naturally, and progress on new ideas is visible to everyone. It’s clear that the company values innovation, and that anyone’s clever idea can sway what we do and how we do it.

Each time we’ve run the Thinkubator we’ve refined the program a little more. It’s become a cornerstone in our calendar.

And recently, we’ve seen that Thinkubator-like programs don’t only work in tech companies. I believe that any business with an appetite for new approaches to innovation could run this program as a giant first step towards a more innovative culture.

For example, CORE Education recently adopted the Thinkubator (under the name He Kākano), and fourteen teams worked up suggestions that CORE wouldn't have heard otherwise. A buzz built up around innovation, and a selection of those ideas are already on their way to becoming projects and products.

The big lesson here is that the hard work of changing workplace culture doesn't have to be lonely. By sharing approaches we can build innovation leaders across industries. This is truly inspiring.

Many companies believe innovation will deliver a response to the massive disruption being cause by technology, but a number of businesses aren’t sure where, or how, to start.

John Ascroft.

As you work on this change, remember to look outside of your industry. There’s inspiration to draw, and lessons to learn, from organisations in all sorts of fields.

Structured programs have a big role to play in your evolution. Because they work on the human level, not the industrial one, this wheel doesn’t need reinventing. Borrow effective approaches from wherever you can find them, and to share your progress as you do.

John Ascroft is chief innovation officer of Jade Software.