When it comes to innovative companies, Apple tops the list. Apple hasn’t just been on the cutting edge of technology. They’ve changed the way our society interacts with one another by inventing new products that solve our needs. The Apple Macintosh allowed everyday people to have a computer in their homes, the iPhone allowed us to access a global network from a device we can keep in our pockets, and the iPod and Apple TV changed the way we consume entertainment.
Apple isn’t just creating cool inventions, though. Their company seeks to “think differently” and challenge the status quo by building products that are unlike anything else out there. At the foundation of their company is a culture of innovation.
Not every company can operate exactly like Apple, but every company can seek to establish a culture of innovation, and encourage innovative thinking and application across their various teams. Senior leadership can model innovation through their choices about company direction. Managers can encourage innovative approaches from their teams, and implement creative thinking into their management processes.
What Exactly Is Innovation?
So is innovation just a buzzword that means doing cool, new things at your company? Or is there a broader application and nuance to what innovation actually is?
Here’s a simple definition of innovation:
- Applying original and unconventional solutions to current problems
- Launching a never-before-seen process, product or service
- Creating value with those new processes, products or services
Innovation can be as small as implementing a new program or initiative in your own workstream. Or it can be creating new experiences or offering new products for your customers (like a new app). It can also be as big as disrupting an entire industry with your new approach to existing problems (think Tesla or Uber). Innovation isn’t tied to just one industry, but can be applied everywhere.
Why should companies embrace this kind of approach? Innovative companies keep an edge on their competition with their ideas and products. Solving customer problems in new, unique ways can also be a key differentiator for a company looking to stand out. Innovative companies also attract creative talent who want to contribute to forward-thinking, disruptive products. Of course, innovation can create massive growth.
The opposite of innovation is stagnation, and no company wants to be at the back of the pack.
Cultivating a Culture of Innovation
In order to cultivate a culture of innovation, a company needs to know what it wants, and what it needs to sacrifice to get there. Similarly, innovation isn’t a once-a-year team brainstorm on new initiatives. For a company to cultivate a culture of innovation, they need to:
- Foster a culture of innovation by bringing everyone into alignment under a mission for progress and change. This can include encouraging brainstorming, experimentation and learning from failure, and incentivizing and rewarding innovative thinking.
- Move away from “this is how it’s always been” thinking. This includes working with long-term employees who may be resistant to innovation to better embrace new ideas and change and hiring talent that has a track record of creativity and new approaches.
- Have senior leadership model innovative actions. Implementing new programs and initiatives at the top levels will encourage smaller innovations down the ladder, and signal that innovation is a part of the company.
- Understand that innovation is change. Launching a new product line, pivoting the company, or shifting a mission statement needs buy-in and support at all levels. Innovative managers must also be change managers.
- Implement training at all levels to get employees familiar with brainstorming and creative thinking approaches to their projects.
Innovation Can Be Learned
Just as a company doesn’t have to be Apple to be innovative, not every person has to be Steve Jobs to apply innovative techniques to their team. Innovation and creativity can be learned and trained, especially in a work environment that encourages new ideas, testing and learning from failure.
In addition, innovation doesn’t have to disrupt industries to be effective. It could be as simple as coming up with a unique way to better target customers, redesigning a website for easier use, or implementing a new software to track projects.
Training Your Team for Innovation: Design Thinking
One of the easiest ways to get your team to practice innovation is to train them on design thinking, an approach to brainstorming and creating new ideas by focusing on customer needs. This approach to idea generation serves to challenge old fallback concepts and practices, and get your team out of a creative rut. Design thinking can be applied when looking at new initiatives, new products to create, ways to make processes like supply chain more efficient, new marketing approaches to customer segments, and more.
Design thinking contains five steps that build on one another, but that may be repeated as necessary:
Empathize: Don’t start with a problem you think needs to be solved. Interact with your customers, interview them, watch them, and discover what their pain points are.
Define: Use that research to identify which questions your customers need answered, and which problems they need solved.
Ideate: Like brainstorming (only slightly less traditional), the ideation phase is when team members come up with solutions to the problem by whiteboarding ideas, drawing, brain dumping, mind mapping, or other brainstorming techniques. The important thing is to come up with as many ideas as possible without judging them.
Prototype: Now create drawings, models or 3D-printed prototypes of your ideas to see if they might be something that could work for your customers.
Test: Get the prototypes in front of real customers and see if your idea solves their problems. If it doesn’t, go back to the ideation phase to pull out other options.
Design thinking is a great tool for innovation — but will always fail if it’s never implemented. The important thing is to deliberately apply design thinking with your team, and make time to go through the steps.
Training Your Team for Innovation: Creative Thinking
Managers can train employees to think creatively in other ways. For smaller initiatives, take cues from the ideation phase of design thinking and use a broad spectrum of methods to brainstorm ideas, from new ways to engage employees to new approaches to customer service.
Managers can get their employees in the habit of group collaboration to seek solution suggestions from others, especially colleagues from different teams.
Managers can also challenge and train their employees’ creativity by having them apply convergent and divergent thinking to problems, and communicate the value of imagination, even in more analytical industries.
Additionally, managers should seek to ask about ways their reports are using innovative thinking and strategies to approach their workflow. Encourage and reward innovative thinking, and even include innovation as a benchmark on yearly performance reviews. Managers also need to be aware that not every employee will want to embrace new ways of thinking, and may need nudging to understand the benefits of thinking differently.
Creating an innovative workplace isn’t just for companies like Apple. Every company can take the initiative to implement a culture of innovation and get their employees — from CEO to the newest entry-level hire — thinking about ways to create and implement new, unique ideas.