Over the last couple of decades, as many businesses have moved towards more technological, project-based approaches, innovation in organizations has become a hot topic. Technology and project work are, by their nature, breaking new ground so are inexorably linked with innovation and the need to manage innovation so both the term and the concept are very much here to stay.
With such rapid technology advances, particularly in the last decade, we’ve all become used to hearing about, and being involved in, innovative projects. There is no shortage of opinions and concepts about what that means for the future of work, but there is also a lack of clarity about what effective management of innovative projects actually entails. Perhaps even whether innovation can be managed at all. Yet it affects almost all of us in the workplace: how careers will progress, how employees can be motivated and their skills developed, and how to best handle innovation to create a flourishing working environment that ensures minimal employee turnover.
Let’s take a brief look at what innovation management is…
The introduction of something new
Even the term innovation management itself is a source of much debate. Some people argue that the very definition of innovation means that it is not something that can be managed. Others firmly believe that it is entirely possible to build reliable processes and systems that can manage anything – given enough time, resources, experience and failures from which to learn lessons.
Innovation is defined as “the introduction of something new”. This is more than just inventing a new product but rather refers to everything that is involved to deliver that new item out into the world.
Innovation management can therefore be taken to mean the handling of any of those activities that are required to introduce that new item. This could be everything from the initiation of the project that seeks to define the new ideas, to the development, the implementation and final delivery. So it could potentially involve business analysis, project management, change management, manufacturing and production.
Whilst the definition of innovation management, then, is relatively straight forward, it is the definition of “innovation” itself and what constitutes true innovation that is just as important to consider as the term innovation management. Almost any new development within an organizations has the potential to be truly innovative but it is only by creating an innovative culture in an organization that people have the freedom (and are encouraged to use that freedom) to propose radical new concepts.
But just how can you develop an innovative culture within an organization?
Developing an innovative culture– the key aspects
Breaking down each of the key aspects that are involved in innovation management makes it easier to understand how an organization can become more innovative. And when it’s easier to understand it becomes easier to ensure that projects are only defined as innovative if they truly are. And then we can learn how to build a successful project team that can better manage those innovative projects.
Here are the 4key aspects to consider when embarking on an innovative project:
This simply means those resources and abilities that are available within an organization when it comes to the creation and management of any new project considered an innovation.
These capabilities usually revolve around individuals – delivering an innovative project is heavily reliant on the abilities of individual people and teams. It considers the unique insights and abilities, the practical skills and know-how of those people who work in the organization. But it also covers things like tacit knowledge and information capital within the organization and any other resources including the capital that is available. In some circumstances it may also need to consider the potential of individuals if some form of training is required to further develop skills if those skills are in short supply within an organization and in the wider industry so are difficult to acquire by additional hiring.
The difference between capabilities and structures is that structures allow for capabilities to be used effectively. This means the established business or project processes plus the organizational structure and infrastructure of a company.
When structures are right, they can be used as a force multiplier which permits the organization to innovate and operate in a more effective manner. When the right communication channels are in place it makes it possible to make decisions on ways in which ideas can be implemented. Without the right communication channels in place making decisions and implementing ideas can be unnecessarily difficult.
The organizational structure is also key here. Ideas need to be nurtured at all levels. They need their own channel to flow through in order to thrive, rather than following the same processes used for minor changes to an existing status quo. Those groups who are involved in innovation need to be able to move quickly and be prepared to change in order to adapt to what is in front of them. They also need to be able to move away from more traditional methods when the need arises or when ideas present themselves – for instance in order to gain a competitive advantage. This approach may need a different organizational mindset – one that needs to be actively encouraged.
Where the structure already allows for capabilities to be used in an innovative manner it is culture that assists an organization in improving those capabilities where they relate to individual skills. When a pro-innovation culture exists, there is a much greater chance that an organization will be able to recruit the right people but also to retain them.
A good pro-innovation culture is one that encourages unconventional thinking or blue-sky thinking and discourages a mainstream approach. Here are some of the more common traits that you might find in an innovative organizational culture:
• Emphasize the need to always look for ways to make something better
• Value learning, speed and experiments
• Consider failure an acceptable part of the process of creating new things
• Offer responsibility and freedom and lead by vision rather than following a chain-of-command
The final aspect for embracing innovation is strategy i.e. the plan that any organization may have in order to achieve their long-term goals. Strategy is ultimately about making deliberate decisions between feasible options to find those with the best chance of being successful.
There is a strong link between strategy and innovation however, simply put, innovation is just one of the ways in which strategic goals can be achieved. The key to unlocking your innovative activities is to ensure they are aligned with organizational strategy.
Individuals or groups within an organization need to be offered enough freedom in order to be innovative, while still taking into consideration any practical constraints, such as available resources, strategic focus and the capabilities of your team. Although never underestimate the benefits of training and developing people to fill skills gaps and expand their capabilities.