A recent article in the New York Times, entitled, “No Division Required In This School Problem,” described how MIT doctoral student, Peng Shi, saw a possible solution to the problem of getting kids access to good schools that was fair to all parties. He was able to see the solution because he was an outsider, and not involved in the emotion of the problem. Granted, he is incredibly smart, however, his detachment and freedom to think about solutions without restrictions or boundaries allowed him to look at the problem differently – to be innovative.
Innovation is the key to survival for most small to medium-sized businesses because as soon as a process or product is created, a larger company will do it better, copy it, or find a better way to manufacture or market it. Small businesses are better able to be innovative precisely because they are small and more flexible than larger organizations. However, as they grow, structures often get put into place that prevent innovative thinking.
With the Boston school problem, the people who were trying to solve it were all from the district and government that created the problem in the first place and viewed it within a narrow lens of historical context, meaning how the problem came to be and what had already been tried. The more structure and legacy we have around a problem, the harder it is to see a solution because of the boundaries we have assigned to it.
True innovation can only happen when all things are possible, even when you think they aren’t. What if you had all the resources you needed to solve the problem? What if you were not bound by legacy or beliefs? What solutions might emerge?
Workplace cultures can inhibit or encourage innovation. First, the organization has to be open to change, and I mean REALLY open to change. Not just lip service. Look at the last six months of the organization – what changes have taken place? What ideas were proposed and implemented? If the answer is none, you don’t have a culture that embraces innovation. If there are a couple, you at least have a start. If there are several, you might have a culture a change that feels like chaos! Good for you.
Innovation starts with the leader’s tolerance for different ideas, initiatives and dialogue that lead to better ways of doing things. Next, the executive management team needs to embrace the concept and let ideas bubble up, not just trickle down. The best ideas are often from the least likely source and the culture needs to have a way for these ideas to be heard or vetted. Do managers routinely ask for ideas? Do they take action on those ideas at least as far as vetting the concepts? An easy way to test for this is to simply ask your lowest paid workers if they feel they can talk with their managers or team about any new ideas they may have – and ask for an example if they say yes.
Innovative cultures foster innovative companies – and innovative companies usually have the best products and services. Check out your innovation tolerance and make sure you don’t have artificial boundaries on it.