Fostering Innovation in Your Business


If we're not fostering innovation in our businesses, chances are we won't be in business for the long haul.

Whether we innovate in products, services, customer service, manufacturing, operations, sales, marketing, etc. — innovation is essential to constantly keeping ahead of our competition and for keeping our businesses healthy.

Innovation expert, Stephen Shapiro, points out that innovation is an-going process that needs to be spliced into the DNA of our companies. Innovation is not a singular event or accomplishment.

And it doesn't matter how big or small your company is. Innovation is do-able for all. His book, Best Practices Are Stupid, offers some thought-provoking strategies about how to make innovation a repeatable, sustainable and profitable part of your firm's culture.

Innovative Business Ideas

Most people think innovative ideas only come from brainstorming. Shapiro is quick to point out that brainstorming is just one step in the innovation process. He says, "It just happens to be everyone's favorite." 

Why is that? Because most everyone has fun feeling creative by throwing ideas out on the table with no limits to the imagination and no judgment or criticism.

But is that effective? Are the best ideas really discovered in such an environment?

Shapiro argues that without the right "box" or framework to guide the brainstorming, the ideas quickly dry up. In fact, the clearer the framework, the better the ideas. And his experience in leading hundreds of companies and thousands of people through innovation processes backs that up.

Meanwhile Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, in a New Yorker article tells us that brainstorming is useless without criticism and debate. He cites several research studies (Yale University, Kellogg School of Management, UC Berkeley, among others) that refute Alex Osborn's (BBDO's founding partner) premise that an absence of criticism and negative feedback would foster more ideas.

If anything, it is through the process of debate and critique, and the participants' widely varying backgrounds that the most and best ideas come to light. Certainly Pixar and Apple can attest to this. These companies' cultures are famous for hiring employees with unusual backgrounds who constantly confront, challenge, and debate all ideas brought forward, refining and honing them until what emerges is nothing less than movies, products, and services that (for the most part) exceed their customers' and market expectations.

Then there's Susan Cain, author of Quiet, whose investigative research shows how forced collaboration actually deters innovation. Her book sheds light on how introverts are often overlooked and left out in the more extroverted business culture of the U.S. — much to our collective detriment.

She's discovered that better and more profitable ideas emerge when individuals come up with ideas on their own and then share them in a environment that encourages debate and criticism. That 33% to 50% of the population is filled with introverts who excel at coming up with great ideas in solitude. And when not overpowered by extroverts (who tend to talk more than they listen), introverts add to the richness of the crucial debate and critique phase of innovation.  

Key Takeaways for Creating An Innovation Culture  

- Innovation is a process, not a destination.

- Provide a framework when you solicit ideas. You will get more, and stronger, ideas.

- Get your extroverts to come up with their own ideas by themselves — then pool your introverts' ideas with your extroverts'. 

- Have them all argue, arm-wrestle, debate, and critique the ideas in the pool and the new ones that emerge. Manage the process so your introverts get sufficient air time to contribute. You'll discover the best, and most profitable ideas as a result.