How To Stay Innovative in Business?


What do Tesla, Amazon, and Netflix have in common? According to Forbes all of them belong to the top 10 of the world’s most innovative companies of 2018. As such, these companies are an inspiration for any CEO, HR, Product or Project Manager. But what is their secret? How do they define their products or services all over again and again? How can leadership encourage innovation?

These are questions every business or team leader has asked themselves. On the one hand, people in leading positions often lack the understanding of how innovation is developed. Another hindering factor is that corporate governance often does not support innovation sufficiently since its importance is not realized or the governance is designed for running a business, rather than exploring new ones.

5 Drivers for Self-Sustaining Innovation

On the other hand, companies may feel intimidated by bigger, more well-known firms, which are (seemingly) impressively innovative. Due to the feeling of powerlessness, the fear of failure inhibits companies from becoming innovative. Leaders are pressured by this fact as well – hindering them to sufficiently support a company’s ability to innovate. 

However, most of the time, these appearingly fancy innovations are more appearance than reality. Rich Turrin calls this effect the “Innovation Theater”. Big companies create buzz about their innovation while they are actually less impressive than they claim to be.  

Stay innovative
Stay innovative

Truly innovative ideas do not simply appear out of the blue. There are many influencing factors that large as well as small companies must consider. This is great news because it means that leaders of all companies have the power to encourage innovative thinking. It is in a leader’s hand to foster self-sustaining innovation in a company.  So how to navigate the innovative idea finding process and foster self sustaining innovation management within a company? At Spark Work’s we propose the following five drivers to guide you through it:

1. Put your customers first – Customer Engagement

The first self-sustaining innovation driver is about customer engagement. As mentioned in our last blog (Stop chasing disruptive innovation, focus on sustainable innovation), innovation is based on a deep understanding of the customers’ context and their needs. By adding value for customers, a company is able to gain a competitive advantage.

In our digital world, customers are not only consumers but also producers, as they help discover new ideas for improved services or products. Bill Gates famously states that “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning”. Therefore, a company must take customer needs, issues, and desires to heart to fulfill customers’ expectations.

Put your customers first – Customer Engagement
Put your customers first – Customer Engagement

Additionally, it is essential for a company to think of what customers will need in the future and knowing the current customer’s behavior is paramount for building customer-oriented innovation for the future. If you want your customers to adopt new values and behaviors, you need to understand the “why” behind their buying behavior today. You are wondering how that works?

  • Get feedback from customers who know your brand, product or service to discover pain points and key benefits
  • Create a customer engagement channel or social media platform that involves customers in your innovation-finding process. A good example is Migipedia, Migros’ community platform.

Customers will feel more appreciated and attracted by your brand if you involve them and ask for their opinion. Plus, loyal customers who identify themselves with your brand will always be happy to give you feedback. 

2. Trigger individual creativity 

Before discussing how individual creativity can be triggered, we need to clarify why creativity is necessary in the first place. For that, let us look at the innovation development process. Innovation can arise from seven stages: 

  1. Challenge & Empathize: Gain insights by empathizing with users and understanding what the most urgent needs and drivers of their behaviors are.
  2. Define: Analyze the collected information and summarize the results to define a feasible solution for the problem.
  3. Ideation: collecting of innovation potential and evaluating ideas
  4. Concept: comprehensive analyses and derivation of concepts for the solution, implementation, and marketing.
  5. Solution: solution developing and testing until the final product has been discovered.
  6. Market:  awakening and fulfilling customer needs through implementation in procurement, production, and logistics, as well as marketing and sales.
Innovation process
Innovation process

While the first phase is more creative and less structured than the others, it is extremely crucial to the whole innovation process. Any innovation process begins with brainstorming, which, at best, can result in a groundbreaking innovation. Creativity and innovation profit from one another.

The source of creative and innovative ideas lies in the creativity of a company’s own employees and leaders. This is crucial for getting creative innovation processes rolling and sustaining them. To control processes like these efficiently, specific impulses from a leader during the different innovation stages are vital: 

  • scope for trying something new – allowing dissent and going against the flow
  • space for experimenting – physical but also the time and governance to manage it
  • Critical thinking
  • willingness to learn

The above mentioned factors are not always that hard to implement and make the perfect mixture for a fertile base of new ideas.

3. Foster continuous learning & an exploration mindset

For a company to stay innovative and ever-changing, its employees need skills and know-how of the business and industry-related topics, but also those surrounding it. For employees to be innovative, try new processes or do something groundbreaking, they need to keep learning to see things from a different angle. When companies do not support continuous learning, new ideas hardly develop, innovations do not happen, services and products remain unchanged and nothing pioneering will ever be achieved. Employees must be able to challenge themselves to acquire new knowledge, ideas, and skills. Learning needs to be flexible, tailored and continuous for the purpose of playing its part in this kind of innovative performance. Now that you know how crucial continuous learning is for innovation, there are different ways to encourage your employees to stay committed to learning:

  • provide training programs within the organization
  • offer the possibility of joining external workshops or conferences
  • motivate employees to sign-up for e-Learning courses
  • foster group work with other co-workers
  • be a coach and mentor for your employees
  • encourage employees to do research and to read
  • provide space for experimentation and exploration
Employee Innovation
Employee Innovation

Not every employee is self-motivated and will adopt continuous learning on his or her own. The majority will not have time, motivation and resources to do so. As a leader, it is your task to build that time into their schedules, drive the motivation and do your best to find the resources that can lead to an entrepreneurial environment open for learning. This is clearly easier said than done. For example, some team members who may not be self-motivated will need a helping hand. Here are some ideas on how to guide them:

  • show the importance and value of self-motivated learning by being a role model
  • define entrepreneurial goals for the employees and integrate these within their day-to-day activities to foster their motivation in further educating themselves to achieve those goals
  • block time and offer resources in the employees’ daily working routine

Continuous learning is not only important for the success of the business but also for the personal growth of your team. A learning culture improves entrepreneurial performance, innovation and additionally employees’ satisfaction and retention.

4. Steer creative team processes

Great ideas often do not emerge by one single person. Most of the time, there is a whole team and a series of seemingly disconnected events, inputs or interactions behind developing an innovative idea. When Charles Darwin was asked when he came up with his Theory of Evolution, he would pinpoint a very specific Eureka moment. However, research done on his very meticulously kept journals, reveals that he was already playing with this idea 10 years before, but had not yet “connected the dots”.

A team depends heavily on the right constellation of team members with previous experiences and biases, mixed with a creativity-enhancing team spirit and meaningful, inspiring goals. In the creativity process, an understanding and supporting leader, coach or facilitator is essential to manage the interplay between opposing ways of thinking and communication. In doing so, it is necessary to focus on the right problem, find ideas to solve the problem and then start over again. To support a team with their creative process, a leader must:

  • bring together a diverse team with different mindsets
  • organize team building activities to build trust, improve communication, boost teamwork and reveal hidden talents
  • support creative teamplay with creativity and dialogue techniques
  • supply time, financial and physical resources for experimenting and thinking outside the box
  • set clear, short and achievable milestones for the team to keep “winning” and stay motivated
Creative teamwork
Creative teamwork

Creative thinking and a willingness to take risks should represent company values. Inspired and motivated employees are prepared to break new ground and think outside the box. And if a team achieved a great idea, it is crucial that their leader rewards the team and shows his or her respect for their work. 

5. Realize ideas

Ideas are plentiful, execution is rare! Most ideas are left to gather dust in a drawer. This is often the case when there is no space, framework, governance or KPIs. In other words, processes in place to unleash their potential:

  • take time to listen to your employees ideas 
  • push good ideas from your employees
  • provide realistic resources for innovation
  • have a clear plan for what comes next
Prototyping ideas
Prototyping ideas

But be careful: processes, which are too strict or have too many standards, rules or specifications are innovation killers. Moreover, spending too much time on unfeasible ideas must also be avoided. It is often the case that we find zombie projects and ideas, which nobody has dared to kill because of the perceived investment and fear of failure. In many organizations, killing a project is often harder than starting a new one.

Ideas should not only motivate your employees to continue finding new ones but also foster a continued interaction with your customers, which, in both cases, fosters self-sustaining innovation.

While it is always interesting and exciting to talk about Tesla, Amazon or Netflix as examples of self-sustaining innovation companies, there are as well many companies less well-known for their innovationsuch as PostFinance, Philip Morris or Baloise, which have gone through enormous change, invested heavily in building a self-sustaining innovation culture and have set the foundations to remain agile for the future. Being innovative is not about the size or brand name. When we think about self-sustaining innovation, these are the five key drivers that we believe help a company:

  • listening to their customers’ current needs
  • supportingcreative thinking within a company and allowing experimentation for learning, not success
  • motivating employees to be willing to learn new skills and develop new ideas and giving credit where credit is due
  • arranging diverse teams and fostering team-building activities
  • building a framework that shows the path an idea could take, but be open to adapt when needed

As Alan Cabello, emphasizes:
“Learning and practicing always go hand in hand. There is no point in training employees in new skills and ways of working if you send them back to work the same way they did before. On the other hand, you cannot expect people to work differently when you have never trained them or given them the tools to do so.”

Alan Cabello, Co-Founder of Spark Works
Alan Cabello, Co-Founder of Spark Works
Alan Cabello, Co-Founder of Spark Works

How Spark Works supports you in innovation

How Spark Works supports you in developing an appropriate innovation process and a self-sustaining innovative culture within your company. Many companies boil the ocean when trying to find the right tools for the innovation process and create an action plan that will enable their company to establish a creative environment and an innovative corporate culture. Do you need a helping hand that guides you through the innovation process?

Spark Works is Switzerland’s leading strategic innovation company
Spark Works is Switzerland’s leading strategic innovation company

At Spark Works, we can help estimate your innovation preparedness. With practical workshops, we explore the potential and possible challenges for your company by introducing and leveraging Human-Centered innovationapproaches. We aim for your employees to develop skills and the mentality to sustain Human-Centered Innovation approaches throughout their daily work. Together with you, we will develop a strategy and define specific steps to put ideas into practice.

Coming up in the next blog

When we talk about innovation, we often think about the product or service itself. However, as the article above shows, not the product or service should be the main focus but the customer. In the next blog post, we will talk about the importance of customer-centricity and in which way it influences the success of your company.

By Linda Armbruster, Design Partner

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