Innovation is an Attitude

I’ve had the chance to interview several Chief Innovation Officers. Here I give some thoughts on why they and innovation itself are so important.

On our podcast, Flyover Labs, I’m lucky enough to interview many talented and creative people. I’ve interviewed a number of Chief Innovation Officers. I love these interviews because for me they are the future and the heart of some of these large companies.

I have many different findings from these interviews. Today I want to talk about how to make innovation the core function of a large company. I’ve never started or run an innovation program at a large company but through these interviews and my own innovative products, I have something to share.

How to instill innovation?

I have really enjoyed talking to these Chief Innovation Officers at American Family, Fidelity, Revera, and Xerox because they need to innovate, often in an organization where innovation has not always been at the forefront. What I’ve learned over and over is that they all focus on changing the culture and the attitude at their organizations.

This may seem obvious, and in some ways it is. But innovation is such a commonly used word now that it sometimes lacks substance. “Let’s be innovative!” That sounds nice but where do you start? How do you become innovative, come up with new ideas and execute on them? It doesn’t just happen by saying Let’s Innovate. Nor does it happen overnight.

That’s why these Chief Innovation Officers focus on the culture. And it makes so much sense. In my own life, I’m always thinking of new ideas for clients or projects. When I learn something new I try to see how this could help someone I know. For me that’s a big part of the innovative process: reading, learning, digesting new ideas and then integrating them into my framework of ideas and projects and partners.

But I don’t think everyone is like that. Just imagine if everyone at some of these large companies was like that. Wowsers. There would be so many different ideas. How to deal with all of those ideas I’ll save for another blog post.

These ideas are the beginning life blood of innovation. However, it may seem risky and uncomfortable for people to share ideas. When I share an idea, I get nervous it might get shot down. Over the years, I’ve become better and taking criticism. So an organization needs to be tolerant of bad ideas (there will be many) to find the few that will lead to blockbusters.

How do you instill this acceptance of bad ideas, good ideas?

It’s tough. It needs to start from the top I’ve learned. Senior level executives need to be onboard with innovation and ideally submit their own bad ideas too. We’re all fallible.

I like what the Chief Innovation Officer did at Reuters where they set up an internal VC group to fund good ideas from their employees. It sounds like they’ve obtained some nice potential products. But what I think is even more important is the attitude it sets at Reuters. Now people across the organization know about the internal VC group. Every month or so they have employees pitch their ideas.

The ones that resonate with the judges are funded to test out the idea. It’s pretty simple which also makes it brilliant.

I know other companies do the same but I’m surprised more don’t. It signals to everyone in the company that we want your ideas, your ideas are the future for our company. Instead of just buying innovation, which is very expensive and can be fraught with issues, innovating internally can be an affordable and sustainable way to grow a company.

And the funny thing is that the employees are the best people to suggest new ideas. These large companies are perfect breeding grounds for innovation, if they can figure out how to tap into them.

Good luck.

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