Last month, President Donald Trump’s hand-picked leader of the newly created White House Office of American Innovation, Jared Kushner, held his first conference call to discuss the nation’s state of innovation. Coinsidering that those on the call included leaders such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, Marc Andreessen and Elon Musk, Kushner made a bold entrance.
But that’s not surprising. Innovation, after all, remains the lifeblood of American success, whether the context is technology, military dominance or the economy. And, part of maintaining innovation’s upward trend means allowing the government to help foster it.
In this way, it's edifying to see that the White House has innovation on its radar, as this underscores the point that all businesses need to make innovation a priority. Fortunately, sources of inspiration are all around us, and a few basic practices can keep things moving in that direction.
1. Innovate by example.
Amazon pulled off innovation by example -- and continues to do this -- better than most companies. In very little time, it blossomed from its "online marketplace" origins into a formidable foe for Microsoft in the battle for cloud storage and computing supremacy. Nobody would have expected a "bookseller" to come so far, but when you review all the disruptive, daring innovations implemented by Jeff Bezos and his team, it’s no wonder that Amazon’s innovation exploits stand out.
And internet tech is hardly the only industry benefiting from out-of-the-box thinking. The “alternative to meats” market for example, is, surprisingly, brimming with innovation. Beyond Meat, to name one such innovator, sells realistic-tasting vegan burgers and other offerings and operates under a tenet (which sounds a lot like innovation) of “Move fast and break things.”
Memphis Meats, meanwhile, innovates by creating products that come from animal cells in a lab -- not live animals -- to deliver a true "meaty" taste.
Of course, innovation is often best seen in hindsight. If we look back a few years, we can see the stunning innovation that's occurred in so many areas. Uber and Lyft both revolutionized the ride-service industry. Snapchat turned social networking on its head. And biotech startups like 23andMe expanded what we used to think was possible in terms of personal genetic knowledge.
Innovation is happening all around us, so what simple things can you do at your company to encourage it?
2. Create flat-organization architectures.
Adding layer upon layer to your organization’s structure creates waterfall-style development and business cycles -- but that’s not always a good thing. While this approach has merit, you should avoid taking that route if you’re leading a young company. Instead, flatten your structure out and free room in the budget for innovation and project development.
Consider Semco Partners. After the usual motivational gimmicks it implemented yielded nothing, the Brazilian joint-venture catalyst-company went for a drastic overhaul, flattening its hierarchy to just one corporate layer and two manufacturing ones. No manager reports to any other; instead, the company's emphasis on self-management allows workers to bring practical skills and common sense to their jobs.
To make that transition, Semco divided employees into work groups of about 150 each. That encouraged ease of interaction and better coordination of their efforts, but it also cashed out for the company in terms of increasing its productivity while lowering costs. Carried out during what proved to be a financially perilous time, the shift ended up being a lifesaver for Semco.
3. Encourage personal projects.
You should allow and budget for your employees to spend a portion of their time building anything they want for the company. This could be 10 percent, 20 percent or any portion of their time that you decide. Creative types will thrive off this liberty and feel more in charge of their future with your company.
Google did something along these lines in its early days; it was called “20 Percent Time” and gave birth to enterprises such as AdSense, Gmail and Google News. The other big players in tech joined the current company, all offering variations on the “20 Percent Time” model. But the personal project idea isn't just for tech giants. Small startups can and should set aside time and budget for personal exploration.
4. Focus on an inclusive culture.
Include the ideas of everyone on the team -- especially those on the front lines, because they deal with customers and know their pain points. This is critical because innovation is about finding solutions to real problems, not just creating gadgets that nobody will use. You'll often find that the most creative ideas and solutions come from your customer-facing team, not the designers.
While you’re at it, don’t forget your customers. Focus on their needs in a committed and organized way by keeping a record of their recommendations, whether directly or on social media.
At InList, we’ve seen the value this approach can deliver: We often get our best product ideas from our concierges -- the people listening to our customers. We encourage them to tell us what we could be doing better. We make a point to ensure that our marketing people listen attentively to customer needs and that no social media post goes unnoticed. We can’t implement every feature request, but we try to understand the underlying needs of our users.
Although the past two decades of American innovation have been utterly transformative, it seems like the pace is only heating up. Being on the front lines of innovation is crucial for the success of any company in this increasingly tech-connected world.
The good news? Almost everyone seems to be on board with this innovative future, from the leadership of our country to everyday consumers. By putting into practice a few simple steps, your company too can foster innovation and participate in this exciting new marketplace.