How to Innovate for Success

It is my strong belief that the only two sustainable competitive advantages left to most businesses today are; creating an organizational culture of innovation and extreme customer focus — both of which are driven by finding and keeping only the best people on your team.  In other words, you need to be a connoisseur of talent and encourage your bright and skilled team members to be highly innovative and deliver consistently superior customer service.  In this article I like to share with you a few quick ideas about how to foster a more innovative culture in your organization.

Embrace the idea of “kaizen.”  This is a Japanese term made famous by Toyota that describes the idea of “continuous and never ending improvement.”  The interesting thing about kaizen though, is you don’t have to completely reinvent the way you do business, you simply strive to find someplace in your organization that you can improve by 1% every single day.  If you come up with something highly innovative and game changing, great!  But the real power comes from disciplined pursuit of incremental improvements, every day, I every employee.  As an example, the typical employee at Ford gives management contributes an average of 1.4 suggestions for improvement each year.  A typical Toyota employee contributes an average of 44 suggestions for improvement each year.  Imagine the improvements your organization could make if annually everyone was giving 40 or 50 of their best ideas for how to improve the company.

If you want innovation, make it part of everyone’s job.  In companies that highly value innovative thinking, such as Google or Gore, they make it part of every employee’s job description and assign a percentage of every workweek strictly for experiments, brainstorming, and creative thinking about new ways to innovate and make the company better.

Expose your people to innovative thinkers.  Once a month, or once a quarter bring in an actor, artist, poet, inventor or some other such creative thinker and let them share their philosophy of innovation with your team.  Most companies are far too insular, the only look at their company, their industry, their direct competitors.  Innovative companies look everywhere for creative ideas that they can swipe and adapt to their organization.

Create clear and specific innovation targets.  Organizations that make innovation a priority do so by building innovation into the strategic plan and operational objectives of the organization.  For example, one company I worked with set a strategic innovation target that a minimum of 30% of current products must have been developed within the last year.  When an innovation target is this precise and challenging, people throughout the organization have no option but to consistently look for ways to innovate and improve the business

Lavishly reward those who are innovative.  What gets measured and rewarded for… gets done even better!  Every few months have your employees give a presentation on their top three innovative ideas for making the company better.  Pick the best ones, implement them, and then if they are highly successful share part of the wealth with the employee that contributed be innovative idea.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be huge check, it might be a day off or contribution to their favorite charity or some flex time… but the point is to hold that person up as an example to everyone else in the company that innovation is important and will be rewarded.

If every employee in your business spends serious time and effort thinking exploring ways to find even a 1% improvement in productivity, innovation, teamwork, efficiency or customer service — and then you effectively implement the very best ideas, soon you will see your business achieving higher and higher levels of success.

John Spence is an accomplished businessman and a leading authority on strategic thinking, advanced leadership development, and many other building blocks for successful businesses. He ranks highly among the most sought-after executive educators and has conducted workshops for numerous Fortune 500 companies.