Create Space for Innovation at Your Company
Move fast and break things. It’s more than just one of the most famous sayings in Silicon Valley. It has become a rallying cry for a slew of early stage disruptors eager to move as quickly as possible to execute on breakthrough ideas, shake up the status quo and drive change in long-standing industries.
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For established players, the heat is on like never before to continue to innovate or get left in the dust. Especially in tech, the Goliaths — no matter how established they are — know they’re always just one slingshot strike away from getting knocked down by a faster, more agile startup version of David. To keep that competitive edge, and stay one step ahead, many companies — like Google, Amazon and SAP — set up their own internal innovation hubs to create their own versions of startups, but with a corporate safety net.
Broadly, there’s plenty of mixed opinions to be found about these types of innovation incubators, and whether they’re worth the investment. Getting them off the ground requires a significant amount of buy-in from stakeholders, not to mention the time, resources and effort needed to create and maintain them. Plus, once you’re up and running, it can be tricky to calculate ROI. After all, how do you put a price tag on innovation?
Based on successful innovation hubs we’ve worked with, and in setting up our own, I’ve seen what separates the ones that work from the ones that miss the mark. It starts by recognizing that true innovation comes from bucking trends, not following them. There’s no template or one-size-fits-all approach to building a successful hub. It’s not enough to throw some lounge furniture in an open-concept room, cover a wall with sticky notes, install an espresso maker and hope the ideas flow from there. It’s not about the space. It’s about a state of mind, and getting specific about what you’re trying to achieve and what moves the needle for the broader business.
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As a leader, building a successful innovation hub starts with a shift in mindset. During our day-to-day lives in a traditional office setting, road maps rule the day. It’s all about deliverables, and the destination. And that makes sense. You need teams across departments to make it to the same place on time. Within innovation hubs, it’s different. The destination matters, but really, the priority is the journey, and how it unfolds. As a leader, instead of thinking about innovation in terms of a road map, it helps to give it a bit of wiggle room by taking more of a “GPS” approach — the idea being, even if your team swerves down an unexpected path, you can always reroute to find your way again. Ask yourself what you want to achieve, provide your team with a jumping-off point and then give them the creative space they need to determine what it’ll take to get there. It’s loosening up your grip, without letting go completely.
When it comes to building your team, make sure your inner circle is inclusive by broadening out beyond your go-to group of developers and engineers. If your goal is innovation, the last thing you want to do is build an ivory tower or a silo, cut off from everyone else, for a group of workers who are all cut from the same cloth, and do the same job — no matter how talented they might be. Instead, focus on fostering an environment that encourages diversity of thought. Pulling in bold, creative, outside-the-box thinkers from every corner of your organization often leads to bold, creative, outside-the-box solutions, processes and approaches. And that’s when true innovation happens.
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Maintaining an effective innovation hub, of course, depends on your ability to champion the vision to internal stakeholders. After all, no buy-in from the powers that be means no support. Once you’ve found a strong infrastructure of supportive team members that is passionate about innovation, get strategic about how you define success. Instead of calculating ROI in dollars and cents, start by defining why you’re making the investment in the first place. Then, consider what the cost of not innovating would be. When you have a clear intention, mission and vision, it’s easier to see how the output of your innovation hub stacks up against it.
Creating your own nest to incubate innovation is a delicate balance between empowering creativity and realizing your business goals. But, if you’re strategic, and keep an open mind, you may just build the perfect launching pad for disruptive ideas to take off and propel your business to the next level.