Innovation is top of mind for organizations. When Forrester Research polled CEOs on their top business priorities, 36 percent of those surveyed said sustaining innovation is on their radar. However, few organizations excel at creating a culture of innovation in which employees are truly empowered to generate, develop, and pitch great ideas.
The image of the “mad scientist” in the lab might be extreme, but more technical minded employees may never have their smartest ideas heard due to a lack of the right communication skills or an organizational structure that does not encourage employees to speak up when they have a creative approach or novel idea.
With the right changes, you can easily put your organization on the path to true innovation.
1. Translate the value of your product into language that internal teams, investors, stakeholders and customers can understand
Too often, innovative and disruptive ideas sit idle in the lab because their value proposition is too complicated to explain or understand and the related customer user experience or benefit is lost in translation. Being able to convert those ideas into revenue is a powerful skill for a technology manager or executive. It means being able to translating those ideas clearly to various divisions inside the company, to customers, and to the VC world. Similarly, translating product specifications into language that meets the emotional needs of your customers helps shorten the believability curve that all disruptive companies must overcome.
When looking to translate technical ideas into more relatable terms, always consider your audience and follow three rules.
- Make it clear – Avoid technical jargon if your audience won’t understand the concepts. Outline the key points you want to make and stick to those points when communicating.
- Bring it to life – Consider storytelling rather than rattling off product specifications. Tap into the emotional element of a product with real life examples that put the product into perspective.
- Keep it relevant – Ask yourself, “Does my audience need to know this?” If you’re talking to a VC, talk in terms of business value, ROI, or growth numbers. If you’re talking to a customer, talk about the challenge you’ll help them solve.
2. Break down organizational silos
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome in capturing new business ideas from your team is the siloed and sales-centric nature of most traditional businesses. Sales teams are often closest to customer needs, but those needs may not always be communicated as effectively to non-customer-facing roles. This leaves developers and engineers in the dark as they are forced to brainstorm product ideas despite a lack of clear insight into what customers are demanding. Forget the organizational chart when you invite people to meetings — invite anyone who has a skill or talent related to a project you’re working on, and give them an opportunity to provide some input. Encourage technical people to accompany your sales team on pitches so they can more easily translate a customer’s emotional needs into product specifications.
3. Create a provocative but safe environment for experimentation
Innovation and disruption are tough. It’s not unusual for the most disruptive ideas to be shot down because customers are comfortable with the traditional approach and the way they’ve always done things. Employees must feel safe to propose new ideas in an environment where they are not immediately shot down, no matter how crazy they sound. And they should be a part of presenting that solution to a customer.
Internally, creating a place for employees to present in front of smaller groups in a stress-free environment is productive. Give employees the opportunity to learn in real time by encouraging them to then pitch their ideas to executives or customers. If it fails, they know exactly what they need to do to go back to the drawing board and try again. Try doing “test” meetings with long-shot customers or investors and ask them to provide critical feedback before the real roadshow kicks off.
4. Incentivize creative ideas – and don’t punish failure
If you want to create a culture that encourages employees to push boundaries and themselves, move away from traditional performance goals and compensation packages to a system that encourages and rewards employees for creative ideas. If innovation is part of your culture, consider an employee review process that measures success based upon alignment with cultural values over completion of job tasks.
Most importantly, reward people publicly – in the form of praise, equity bumps, compensation, or promotions – for coming up with and trying a new idea, whether the idea succeeds or fails. Oftentimes, recognizing an employee for a project that failed tactically is just as valuable as rewarding them for a project that succeeded according to more measurable metrics. This is a critical step to promoting a culture of innovation.
Tying it all together
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for every organization – adjust your approach based on what sticks and what doesn’t. Forced initiatives or one-off innovation workshops will only get you eye rolls from your employees. When creating an innovation strategy, ask yourself if you would find those goals meaningful given the broader needs of the organization. Periodically challenging your assertions along the way is a good feedback loop that helps set up organizational success. At the end of the day, your employees must feel valued, rewarded, and heard.
Tony Atti is cofounder and CEO at Phononic.