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Where has all the innovation gone?

Tips for developing an innovation culture within your company – and making sure it makes money for your business – from the Innovation Council’s Louise Webster

New Zealanders are world renowned for coming up with breakthrough thinking and ideas. We have a DIY and entrepreneurial culture that has at times brought us great national pride and international recognition.

So why is it that we don’t seem to be able to commercialise many of these great ideas? What are we doing wrong?

A 2000 Lincoln University study on leadership and culture in New Zealand compared managers in 62 countries. There were several interesting findings:

  • New Zealand managers reported the highest level of “performance orientation” of all countries in the sample”. A high score in this area means that we have high expectations of our achievements both as a nation (in the sporting arena) and in our business environments with our staff; unfortunately maintaining such a high level of achievement means that managers may have a tendency to focus on initiatives that deliver short term value, instead of focusing on long term gain.

  • New Zealand managers were eighth in the survey on “uncertainty avoidance”. This indicates they maybe reluctant to do things differently, stand out from the crowd or take risks.

  • New Zealand scored lowest of all countries on “assertiveness”. People who challenge the status quo or questioning the way our organisations operate are often seen as pushy or aggressive.

So how do we start to develop organisations which focus on long term innovation strategies rather than short term payback, that encourage staff to challenge and question business practices and which develop leaders who actively seek and embrace change for growth?

Our definition of innovation:

Step one: Develop an innovation strategy

  • Make innovation part of your business strategy. Understanding future opportunities for growth, gaps in your market and your competitive advantage will help you to develop focus your innovation projects in the right areas.

  • Get senior sponsorship. Use senior leaders to break down barriers and bring cross functional team together to provide different perspectives and gain buy-in at critical phases of development.

  • Identify areas for improvement. Be specific. Use customer focused research as a tool to focus your thinking on initiatives that are targeted, measurable and tangible.

  • Set key targets and measures. Focus on long term strategic goals and use appropriate measures and KPI’s to assess innovation performance, attitudes and behaviors as well as outputs. Communicate a clear strategy for innovation to your staff and customers; articulate what innovation means for your business.

  • Accept failure. Not all of the things that you try will work, so fail fast and use knowledge gained as a learning experience to inform new initiatives and innovation projects.

Step two: Engage your people

The value that innovative thinking brings to an organisation is largely through the collaboration of people and teams. When embarking on an innovation strategy it is important to engage your people in the process. The role of the leader is not to be the innovator but to create and sustain a culture that allows teams to innovate more effectively.

  • Reward and recognise success. Saying thank you and telling good news stories goes a long way.

  • Learn to work together more effectively. Innovation is a team sport. Each team member has a set of working styles and attributes that are unique to them – use this information to develop high performing teams that deliver results. Develop and work in cross-function projects team with a diverse range of people.

  • Develop skills through innovation training. Challenge assumptions and make innovation part of business as usual. Train your staff on how to use innovation tools in their everyday work. Develop a process to capture ideas and improvements from staff to actively identify and develop your innovation projects.

  • Provide inspiration. Share your knowledge and experiences with others. Collaborate with partners and trusted third parties and bring in specialists to provide new information and knowledge.

  • Refine your innovation strategy. Everyday innovation is about continuous improvement, so have a plan and update it based on new information and knowledge.

Step three: Integrate innovation into your business

This is one of the hardest things to do because it requires organisation change strategy. Start by discussing innovation and what you would like to achieve with the different divisions in your company. Using existing channels that run across the organisation makes it easier to rapidly implement change and avoids the “Iit’s not my job to innovate” debate.

Integrate your innovation strategy, by working with;

Human resources to deliver innovation training workshops and development programs that builds innovation skills and knowledge. Utilise existing KPI’s and reward programs to incentivise staff and celebrate innovation achievement.

The finance department to develop a fund for innovation projects and future focused development projects. There is no point in asking staff for ideas if you can’t implement them.

The IT department to develop a process for innovation where staff can contribute ideas and projects that they would like to work on together across the organisation.

Marketing and communications teams to communicate the innovation strategy and what that means for your organisation and to profile successful projects and the people behind them both internally and externally.

Louise Webster is director of the NZ Innovation Council. The council’s annual Expert Series covers innovation culture, intellectual property and design thinking. The Expert Series takes place in Auckland, Hamilton, Christchurch and Dunedin from 16-19 September.

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