Innovation in the Workplace: How to Harness It

It's difficult to find an organization today that would openly reject innovation. This buzzword has become the mantra of every company seeking to provide the latest and greatest solutions to its industry's problems. But if a company hopes to produce a steady flow of new and creative ideas, it must first realize that innovation is more complex than forging ahead with the first decent suggestion that comes along.

"Innovation requires continual evolution," said Scott Jewett, CEO and founder of research and development solutions provider Element-Y. "An innovative company can have an advantage in the marketplace, but it must also balance the investment and cost with the potential outcome. The problem is that most companies focus on building an innovative infrastructure rather than on teaching their team a structured way of thinking that delivers great results."

An innovative workplace requires a leader who can provide the right combination of people, processes and focus. Leadership experts offered their tips for finding and harnessing innovation in any company or industry. [How to Cultivate Innovation in Real Time]

Hire the right people

All leaders strive to bring the best talent into their organizations, but hiring employees for their innovative abilities can be a particularly challenging task. The key is to recognize personality traits in candidates that correlate with innovation, said Rod Pyle, author of "Innovation the NASA Way" (McGraw-Hill, 2014).

"Finding individuals who embody the characteristics needed for true innovation — imagination, inspiration, knowledge, boldness, persistence and, occasionally, a contrarian mind-set — has become essential," Pyle told Business News Daily. "Innovation is rarely easy, and these traits provide the tenacity to excel."

Seeking diverse candidates who are aligned with a common mission is also extremely important in fostering an innovative environment.

"An organization's mission, clearly defined and articulated, supports the inspiration that precedes innovation and invention," Pyle said. "As NASA and other organizations have learned, diversity in hiring provides different viewpoints that, when combined with other cultural backgrounds, can provide a rich basis for this innovative thinking."

Have a structured thought process for innovation

A common misconception is that structure is the enemy of creative thinking. Jewett disagreed, noting that only through a structured thought process can you measure tangible results. He outlined four concrete steps to the innovative process: Define the essence of the problem; embrace constraints; generate, quick-test and select ideas; and execute.

"You must do steps 1 and 2 before you start having idea fun in step 3," Jewett said. "Step 3 is iterative, and only when you emerge victorious from step 3 do you move on to execution. Most companies merely set an innovation intention and fund the process. Teaching their natural innovators this simple, structured process can help yield great innovation returns, and often transform the competitive landscape."

Following these four steps can help companies break away from the incorrect notion that there are "no bad ideas."

"It's cliché for a manager to kick off ideation sessions with this statement," Jewett said. "A $5 million solution to a $2 million problem? Bad idea. [A structured] innovation process allows for ideas to come from a context of the essence of the problem or need while still embracing the constraints. This way, resources aren't wasted on ideas that don't make sense. Quick-test ideas early to select and invest only in good ones."

Remain focused on the big picture

With any long-term business goal, it's easy to get bogged down by day-to-day tasks and lose sight of the bigger picture. In the case of innovation, it's even more important that leaders learn to stay focused on this continuing goal and encourage their team to do the same.

"Leaders need to break the routine," said Jim Welch, chief product officer of workforce management solutions provider Kronos. "At Kronos, we hold quarterly innovation days, where employees get together and think about new ideas and solutions for our customers. These days serve as a reminder that innovation should be happening every day, and it gives employees a refreshed perspective of their work."

Welch reminded leaders that when they achieve a goal, it's not the time to slow down or slack off. Continue to focus on customer-driven needs and solutions to ensure that the innovative process doesn't wane, he said.

"Companies may become complacent once they meet strategic and financial goals," Welch said. "Never underestimate your competitors, big or small, and always be thinking about how to leverage the latest technologies for your solutions."

Above all, leaders need to be sure that their workplace is one in which innovation can flourish and thrive.

"Your organization needs to provide an environment in which innovation can prosper," Pyle said. "Give [employees] a stake in the process of realizing the innovation — a sense of ownership. Give them the ability to take an idea or inspiration through to the finish, or as close to that as the individual can reach."

Originally published on Business News Daily.