Fotolia_68350386_XS-300x225.jpgIn today’s new normal business environment, innovation is a must for project success! Often, I hear my clients think “I’ve designed this project for success; now I’ll hand it over to the worker bees to execute”; however, this approach is no longer enough. No wonder we have so many unfinished projects and disheartened project team members scattered throughout my clients! Instead, we must create a culture of innovation to ensure project success.

We must find a way for execution and innovation to live hand-in-hand in business, from the executive suites to the shift workers on the production floor. Certainly one possibility is to embrace the lean culture; however, I find there is almost more confusion than clarity among organizations in how to ensure all these “great” concepts yield results. Instead, think of innovation as deeply rooted in your culture. It is not complex or confusing. Innovation must start as culture change.

According to “Inside Steve’s Brain” by Leander Kahney, a book about the late Steve Jobs and creative innovation, innovation doesn’t have to be complex: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

Thus, innovation is not some complex, non-understandable phenomenon. In addition to pure creativity, it’s about re-packaging—literally and figuratively—by connecting the dots in a new way and seeing trends and hidden profit opportunities. Who is typically the best suited to find these types of opportunities? Not the executive suite! Not managers! Yes, it is the people who perform the work – project team members. Thus, why would we think it would work to give them “what is best”, tell them to execute and typically, although we voice support, we don’t support with our actions when it gets tough (such as cross-functional turf battles or ideas affecting month-end performance)?

So, instead of following this path to work hard yet leave many half-finished projects hanging around, we need to create and implement a culture of innovation. How do we go about doing that? There are four basic ways: 1) Focus on the customer. 2) Value your project team members’ input. 3) Support trials & failure. 4) Encourage flexibility.

1. Focus on the customer. No project sponsor would say they aren’t thinking about the customer’s needs but do they? Are they doing what they think the customer wants or are they asking those closest to the customer (project team members) and the customers themselves? Instead of assuming you’ve completed this step, take a step back and talk with the project team members who interface directly with the customer and those which directly support customer needs. You’ll be surprised what you find.

2. Value your project team members’ input. It might sound strange for a discussion about innovation; however, the best people will create innovative ideas, products, and services. Ask your project team members for ideas, input, threats etc. Do NOT ignore them when they push back. See your team members as your customers and dig into what they tell you. Listening is the 80/20 of creating a culture of innovation.

3. Support trials & failure. One of the best ways you can show that you value the ideas of your project team members is to give them room to try them out. The quickest way to kill a culture of innovation is to encourage ideas but not follow through and support them. It is much harder to implement than it sounds! In my experience, the first time an idea fails and causes month-end issues or customer problems, innovation is stifled.To counter this, we must reward mistakes as it is a critical component of cultivating a culture of innovation. At best, I see this philosophy at 20% of my clients. If it were easy, we’d all have a culture of innovation. Give your employees the tools and knowledge and get out of the way. Celebrate failure. If they haven’t failed, they haven’t pushed the envelope far enough. This will encourage further innovation.

4. Encourage flexibility. Do not become married to one idea, one product, one customer’s perception, etc. Instead, create solutions that build in flexibility — think of the nontraditional “and” of two, seemingly opposite ideas. For example, instead of thinking that shortening the project timeline will require an increase in resources for the project; consider thinking about ideas for achieving the “and” – shortening the timeline without requiring more resources. Perhaps there is an overlooked idea which can be uncovered if the project team brainstormed. What if you encouraged a devil’s advocate process to bring out potential roadblocks upfront? Ask your project team to think about how to build flexibility into the process. It will give you many more alternative paths to success when you run into an obstacle or the situation changes due to external forces (which happen daily in the vast majority of my clients).

Think about creating a culture of innovation, and you won’t be disappointed. No one can do it alone; why not get your entire team thinking of how to “win”?

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