SANE Innovation


When it comes to innovation and the nurturing of new ideas, I’m a firm believer in participation by a very diverse group of people within one’s organization.  You may not think that the lady in HR has anything insightful to add to a conversation about a totally new technology idea - but that is exactly why you should include her.

Something New or Different Introduced

Innovation by definition is “something new or different introduced”.  Why not do exactly that in your process of nurturing new ideas? Introduce someone totally new to the process.   Someone you would never imagine could have anything to add.

I venture to say you will be pleasantly surprised with the results.

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Human Brain in a Jar

Henry Ford was once quoted to have asked the question: “Why is it that whenever I ask for a pair of hands, a brain comes attached?

Too many companies ask this same question everyday. They may not verbalize it, but they ask it day in and day out by NOT asking the people that comprise their organizations questions like: “What do you think? Do you agree? How could we do this better?”

Ask is the second step in the SANE approach to innovation. Once you’ve set expectations that you want everyone to be involved in innovation, you have to start asking. Ask your team members to think outside the box. Ask them for their opinions. Ask them if they argee with you, rather than just telling them what YOU think.

Ask, Ask, Ask. You have not, because you ask not.

There are far to many mediocre “me too” companies out there playing catch up, with nothing innovative to show for themselves.

If you want innovation to become part of your organization’s culture, it has to start with YOU (the CEO, manager, team leader, etc). It starts with management innovation. It starts with humbleness, and waking up to the fact that you aren’t better than anyone else. By hiring other people, you’ve already admitted you can’t do everything by yourself, so why shoot yourself in the foot by insisting that you always know best?

Ford was an innovative man in his time, but the kind of thinking reflected in his quote above will only get you where Ford Motor Company is today – struggling and chasing a competitor that “gets it” (Toyota), because their competitor believes in the value of every individual employee.

Yes, your employees have brains! Why not encourage them to use them, rather than stifle innovation by reducing them to a role or a cog? Treat your team members/employees with the respect they deserve, ask them for their opinions and ideas, and start creating a culture of innovation today.

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As a leader, setting the expectations of your team/employees is YOUR responsibility, and is the first step in creating a culture of innovation within your organization.

So, how do you set expectations? Communicate them!

It’s important to communicate your expectations clearly. These expectations should be both what YOU expect from your team/employees, but more importantly, what THEY should expect from you. People need to know that you are serious about working WITH them, NOT just serious about them working FOR you.

Let your team know that you want each and every one of them to know that their ideas and input are as valuable as anyone else’s – including your own. (Stress that last point.)

You should then clearly define how you plan to manage innovation and creative ideas within your organization. Do you have a formal process? (I’ll talk more about this in a future post.)

You then need to lead by example by you yourself meeting and exceeding the expectations that you have set for your organization. This once again means NOT bypassing the system or process you have put in place for managing ideas and creativity. If you set specific guidelines, adhere to them. If you set goals, exceed them. (or at least meet them)

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In thinking about innovation and how innovation can become a cultural trait, as opposed to something that organizations strive for artificially, I came up with what I call the “SANE” approach to innovation, or SANE Innovation.

This approach is to be used by leadership, or the individual/individuals you have made responsible for managing innovation within your organization or team. In my opinion, at the company level, this person should be your CEO or another executive. I don’t believe it is by any means their sole responsibility to innovate. I do believe however, that innovation needs an owner, a champion in your organization.

SANE = Set Expectations->Ask->Nurture->Execute

Set Expectations – Set the expectations of your team members appropriately. Let them know that you want innovation to be a core part of your culture, and not just something you talk about. Let them know that you are confident that each and every one of them has the ability to truly innovate, and that as the leader you will shoulder the responsibility of supporting them, and helping them hone their creativity and talents.

Ask – Ask them to innovate, and ask them often. Now that you’ve shown that you are serious about innovation being something that is expected from everyone, and that you are willing to help them innovate, put the ball back in their court and ask them to come up with innovative, outside the box ideas and solutions to problems. Reinforce how much you value, and expect their ideas by providing them with a system and/or process for submitting those ideas regularly. Depending on your organization, some ideas may need to be private, and reviewed by specific people, but the more ideas that are public, and accessible to everyone in your organization the better.

Also, don’t shortcut the process yourself. Be sure to submit your own ideas, and ask the rest of your organization to comment on them and give their honest opinions, just as they would with anyone else’s idea.

Nurture – Nurtue ideas and innovators properly. Make the nurturing and refinement process something that not just management is involved in. Ensure that the original stake holders in the idea maintain ownership of it, and are comfortable with their level of involvement in it going forward. The more involvement on their part the better. Taking their idea and running with it on your own, even if you at some point give them credit for it, will only create angst, and resentment. In the end your realization of “their” idea will most likely be far from what they envisioned it to be anyway, and they may not even want to be given credit for it.

Execute – Great ideas in and of themselves are worthless. It’s the execution of those ideas that counts. Make sure that when innovative ideas are identified and supported, that you execute on them to bring them to reality. One of the worst things you can do at this stage, when you have a mature idea that has been fleshed out, and that you have supported, is let the idea flounder. Make the execution of innovative ideas/concepts a priority over all things that are not mission critical to your business at the time they arise. Empower the stake holders/idea owners to execute and provide them with all the necessary support and resources needed to do so. Innovative ideas that make it to the point of approval should not become stagnant, as it undermines your entire standpoint, and devalues the worth you place on innovation in your organization.

Remember, you haven’t done anything innovative until you execute.

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