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Although companies — especially tech startups — tout themselves as “innovative,” most are unclear about how innovation works or what it looks like. People throw around “innovation” as the newest buzzword, joining the likes of “creator” or “disruptor,” without ever truly knowing its meaning.
This is why major media outlets such as CNN reported on the latest smartphone emojis under the banner “Innovate.” These emojis get lots of press and accolades, but are they actually tech innovations? Not really, though it’ll be interesting to see how often we can plug a ginger root emoji into a text.
Too often, we equate “newness” with “technological innovation.” But a slightly amplified version of a product or service isn’t innovation. Truly innovative technology ruffles feathers and challenges orthodoxies. It might cause anger because change is unwelcome, especially within organizations. Remember: Organizational momentum is real. Companies develop inertia based on the philosophy that what’s worked thus far must be continued. “We’ve always done it that way” is a low-key red flag that your organization is allergic to innovation.
Yet, innovation doesn’t have to mean throwing everything out the window. A common misconception about innovative technology relates to its size and scope. Innovation doesn’t have to be a big-bang experience — at least not immediately. Innovative technology teams can start small, gain buy-in slowly and evolve from there.
Taking innovation to the next level
Innovation is more than just tired, incremental software and feature updates. The true spirit of innovation rests in bigger, bolder musings: “What if this process didn’t need to exist?” and “What if there was a novel approach to the underlying problem that’s never been considered?” Finding the answers to those questions requires a strong culture of innovation that enables, empowers and finances teams to experiment.
Unfortunately, most companies don’t know how to do more than make surface changes, a la new emojis. They conflate iteration with innovation. Executives need to change their philosophies and lenses around innovation to drive more robust, genuine cultures.
Here’s where to start.
1. Name an innovation czar
When it comes to getting things done, assigning a point person makes sense. So, make innovation someone’s job. Give them resources to back up their innovative technology experiments. Put them in charge of educating the rest of the team on how to challenge the status quo, oversee tests and conduct postmortems.
Not sure whether you have someone internal who can fill this role? The fastest workaround is to partner with an outside innovation expert to help set expectations and kick off the innovation mindset across your organization. Having an outsider’s point of view can be more than just refreshing — it can shed light on what’s possible with today’s technology, uncovering different audiences or brainstorming novel use cases.
With innovative leadership in place, you can forge ahead to generate greater buy-in. PayPal’s answer to drumming up innovation support was to offer workers the ability to place bets on the company’s annual Global Innovation Tournament participants. The wagers came in the form of corporate-funded blockchain currency. PayPal employees who bet on the winning participants could exchange blockchain tokens for experiential prizes. According to PayPal, linking innovation, competition and crowdsourcing improved the quality of the ideas and participation levels — it was a “good bet” on innovation.
2. Insulate and empower
One of the most pervasive issues in “corporate innovation” is the corporation. A company can claim it wants to be innovative and spend a lot of resources to that end. Still, it’s unlikely to succeed until it gives teams freedom and agency to experiment and explore without the Kafkaesque corpocracy getting in the way.
I recently spoke with a friend who had to navigate his company’s “Innovation Committee.” I thought that sounded awfully oxymoronic. True innovation takes courage and room to fail. Putting guardrails and approvals and applying old processes will hamper you. A better approach is setting up an “intrapreneur” group, separating them from the rest of the organization and treating them as removed. Working with an incubator or outside firm can provide even more intentional distance and help lift and extract from that institutional momentum.
3. Tap into everyone’s inner toddler
What do young kids ask all the time? “Why?” It’s probably their favorite word — it’s also essential for innovating. Organizations can easily fall into the well-worn ruts that have worked for eons. Therefore, their employees never question anything. That’s not a recipe for innovation but for stasis.
Though you don’t want everyone throwing tantrums, you certainly want employees to take on a toddler’s inquisitive attitude. For instance, encourage your team to use the Socratic Method, which involves asking questions, challenging assumptions, building a hypothesis and testing the theory. Want a good kickoff point? Ask, “Why do we do this the way we do?” The answer might surprise you.
4. Toss out preconceived beliefs about problems
People tend to approach problems using preconceived notions. The problem is those notions are usually done as quick “mental arithmetic” exercises. They’re based on gut instincts, feelings and, sometimes, outdated data. Bertrand Russell once said, “As usual in philosophy, the first difficulty is to see that the problem is difficult.” That’s true when trying to innovate, too.
When you drill down to first principles, you can quickly see errors that went into initial problem-solving. For example, let’s say you started with the wrong information or presumption. If you built an “innovation” based on that information, your solution couldn’t be the best. So, ensure people check themselves for assumption bias when working on innovations. The less they assume, the more likely they’ll come up with remarkable ideas.
Heads-up: It can be difficult for people to see cognitive biases in themselves. That’s why it’s important to educate yourself, challenge implicit assumptions and let others challenge your beliefs. Discourse with others is a powerful social tool to check your own biases. Although this can be uncomfortable, it can lead to great insights and inroads. Be prepared to model this behavior if you expect it to be embraced companywide.
Every business wants to innovate, but few leaders make the changes necessary for their organizations to become true industry innovators. Even if you just launched and have minimal working capital, you have the power to innovate. All it takes is a willingness to see problems and problem-solving differently.