There was an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review, How to Build a Culture of Originality by Adam Grant, that does a great job of showing how to turn all of your team into innovators. The article starts with a discussion of the US Navy, arguably the poster boy for lack of innovation, and explains how it started “exploding with originality.” What is interesting about the navy example is that the innovation was not centered around iconoclasts or entrepreneurial types but from the rank and file. Most importantly, if it can work in the US Navy, the strategy can work anywhere.
When everyone thinks the same and is relocation to move away from best practices, companies rot. To drive innovation, you need sustained original thinking in your company. The way to do this, as Grant shows, is to build a culture of non-comformity. You must give your team opportunities and incentives to generate new ideas and push beyond the obvious or traditional. You also need to vet those ideas so that the best are executed on, not simply the most popular.
Generate a plethora of ideas
It is critical to get people to generate many, many ideas. In research cited by Grant, the first 20 ideas people generate are significantly less original than their next 15. Across all fields and functions, volume leads to quality (rather than opposing it).
Get people to think boldly. Rather than asking them for improvements, ask them to propose alternative strategies. Have them think like competitors, how would they attack you in the marketplace.
You also get better ideas by asking them individually rather than in groups. When people generate ideas together, many of the best ideas do not get shared. Some people, intentionally or not, dominate the conversation while others hold back to avoid looking foolish.
Another way to generate ideas is actually a throw-back, bring back the suggestion box. While you may end up in an HBR cartoon, suggestion boxes are quite useful as they provide a large number of ideas. As Grant writes, “the major benefit of suggestion boxes is that they multiply and diversify the ideas on the horizon, opening new avenues for innovation.”
Developing a sense for good ideas
While the first step to innovation is generating great ideas, equally important is listening to the right opinions and solutions. Rather than using a democratic process to select ideas, assign people with great track records innovating to select the right ideas. You may want to weigh people’s vote based on their innovation track record or limit the vote to those with a real track record of innovation success (if you have them). The key is not turning it into a democratic group process as many people will not have a good understanding of which ideas have the best potential.
Another successful mechanic is to run a contest or tournament. As Grant writes, “When an innovation tournament is well designed, you get a large pool of initial ideas, but they’re clustered around key themes instead of spanning a range of topics. People spend a lot of time preparing their entries, which can boost quality, but the work happens in a discrete window of time, so the contest is not a recurring distraction. Thorough evaluation helps to filter out the bad ideas. The feedback process typically involves having a group of subject matter experts and fellow innovators review the submissions, rate their novelty and usefulness, and provide suggestions for improvement.”
Cultivating both cohesion and dissent
While you may develop a plan to generate and evaluate ideas, you need to put the appropriate processes in place to maintain originality over time. It is not necessarily building a cohesive leadership team. While in some cases that works, in other cases you introduce groupthink. Even unintentionally, like-minded people gravitate to each other, so you run the risk the leadership team all approaches problems the same way. It is thus critical to make dissent one of your company’s core values. “Cohesion and dissent sound contradictory, but a combination of the two is what brings novel ideas to the table—and keeps a strong culture from becoming a cult.”
A critical tool is to build a framework for choosing between conflicting opinions and allowing the best ideas to win out. When companies fail to prioritize values, performance suffers. Values should be rank-ordered so that when employees face choices between competing courses of action, they know what comes first.
Another tool that runs counter to conventional wisdom is to solicit problems, not just solutions. Although you probably love when employees come up with solutions, there’s an unintended consequence: Inquiry gets dampened. If an employee is always expected to have an answer ready, they will arrive at meetings with their diagnosis complete, missing out on the chance to learn from a range of perspectives.
Another tool to help create a stream of original ideas is that rather than appointing a devil’s advocate, find one. To have impact (rather than simply go through the motions), the devil’s advocate actually has to hold a dissenting opinion and the group has to believe that the dissent is real. Only in this situation will the group seriously consider the dissent and evaluate the idea more critically.
You should also encourage people to challenge you in the open (rather than the my door is always open cliché). If employees see open dissent, and see that it is viewed as a positive, then they too are likely to express their true opinions. You can also get people to challenge you by broadcasting your weakness. I will often tell my team I am not a game designer and encourage them to challenge me on design issues.
Ideas are the first step in innovation
If you build a culture that generates many ideas, and then have a process in place to evaluate them critically and move on the best, you are more likely to innovate. These new ideas can keep your company from stagnating and help you stay above the competition.
- The first step in innovating successfully is generating a overabundance of ideas from your employees.
- Rather than having people focus, encourage them to generate many, many ideas from asking individually to running contests to bringing back the suggestion box.
- It is then critical to evaluate the ideas effectively, primarily by having those with the best track record in innovation making the choices (or having their opinions weighed higher) than a purely democratic process.