Monday, October 26, 2009

Innovation and Time

Ever faced a situation where you read about something interesting and immediately got immersed in it only to hit a roadblock and then you can’t seem to go any further. I recently faced this situation when I came across an innovation challenge over the weekend. So how do you get over this situation? Different people have different things which work for them – some people find that sleeping over it helps them; some people use it as an opportunity to take a break and focus on some other activity. I generally find that discussing this with my colleagues clears my thinking and helps to identify the way forward.

Innovation or creative thinking needs time and patience. We can’t hurry the process nor try to achieve it within a very short time. But yet many companies try to come up with quick solutions and expect too much when it comes to their innovation programs. For Eg: they send their employees to a training program on innovation and expect them to become innovative overnight or have a brain storming session for employees to come up with innovative products and feel disappointed at the lack of ideas.

In other words, innovation programs need to be nurtured like a child. They need constant guidance and reassurance and even small victories should be celebrated. The only way to achieve this is by having a dedicated platform for innovation and by encouraging innovation day in and day out until it becomes second nature to your employees.

So you must be wondering if it is worth the effort. This is the way I look at it. The innovation within your employee’s brain is like a hidden treasure placed somewhere within your house. All you have is a map to this treasure and possibly a way of getting to it. But it still needs dedicated time and effort. Of course, you may be so rich that you don’t need to dig this up and are happy without it. But in today’s recessionary world, I daresay, this situation is very unlikely. For all others, the faster you start digging and the more systematic you are in your approach, the more the likelihood of success.

In summary, innovation programs need some initial investment and also constant reinforcement and encouragement. But they have huge potential to give substantial returns when done correctly. So learn to nurture innovation and explore unchartered territories of information and wisdom.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Random Thoughts

My 3 year old son has just joined a new school and I was invited by the school management for the first observation day, where I got a chance to watch a typical day at school for my little one. I was very fascinated to see my son and other children doing things their own way and exploring it at their own pace and interest. Also the teacher was ensuring that a child completes any activity it picks up before starting the next one.

At work the next day, I realised that we have forgotten both these basic lessons as adults:

Attend any group meeting for brainstorming and you will understand what I am talking about. The ideas that are picked up are generally from the ones who are very loud and can get others in the group to support him/her. A different school of thought generally gets dropped since it not popular and others could not understand it (even if it is promising!!)

Multi-tasking is an activity we all pride ourselves on as adults. But sometimes we get so caught up with trying to juggle so many items that we just do it by extinguishing one fire after another without getting the time to pause and think if we can do it better. Employees are measured at work by their ability to multi-task.

And thus we find that innovation takes a back seat and running the business (even if it is done inefficiently) is the main aim which is rewarded.

Before you think I am being idealistic and we have no choice but to accept this reality, think of these alternative ideas:

  1. All brainstorming or identifying new ideas occur online through a platform where identities are not disclosed and any kind of bias is not encouraged. This ensures that ideas are judged only on the basis of their relative merits in an unbiased manner.

  2. Identity couple of senior people in the organisation (who knows the organisation processes inside out) and free them from all regular business as usual activities and only encourage them to think of new and better way of doing things. Specifically they should be asked to focus on ensuring that they touch processes, which make it simpler for the end customer. Also they should not be scared of suggesting major changes as long as it achieves its end goals.

Run with this for a quarter or two and you will be surprised at the results.

Innovation needs time and dedicated focus. All of us actually don’t realise how much of our regular time is taken up by “business as usual” activity leaving us with no time to innovate. So we end up just paying lip service to innovation.

Eliminating bias and creating a transparent way of judging innovation and new ideas will go a long way in building the innovative culture within an organisation and helping to promote the best ideas.

A small step, maybe, but definitely in the right direction!!!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Innovation and the circle of influence

Do you remember how we used to do our homework when we were kids? We used to try to do it ourselves first and the ones, which were very difficult, keep getting help from various people. We first used to approach our family (maybe an elder brother or Dad/Mum if they are in a good mood) and then slowly expand our circle of influence. Our close friends next, and so on, expanding our circle of influence until we find somebody who has all the answers.

Cut back to our office today – we seem to have forgotten this old and sure shot way of solving problems. We let our egos and other silly adult habits get in the way of collaborating openly and finding solutions. Today in most large organisations, people are more comfortable passing problems around and finding excuses for not working together rather than solving problems together. And how is this affecting us? This affects the organisations’ ability to innovate and its ability to react to business changes in a timely manner.

So how do we solve this problem? Unfortunately there are no easy methods of bringing about changes and any change is going to be resisted and opposed by many. However there are many steps which can be taken to break this chain. Here I have highlighted the major steps in this direction:

  • Encourage employee to employee communications – Employees (mainly those having a flair for problem solving) enjoy finding solutions to challenges. They don’t let organisational structures and hierarchies get in their way of problem solving. These are your best ambassadors to break the shackles. Identify them and encourage them and provide tools to facilitate and achieve their goals.

  • Increase Transparency and remove all bias – The best performers within an organisation should be known to everybody within the organisation. This is possible only if there is a transparent way of showcasing their achievements for all within the organisation to see. Managers or other executive staff should not have any way of manipulating this. This will lead to increased transparency and less political interference.

  • Incentive to Innovate – It is a well known fact that time is of the essence when it comes to innovation. Also the world will not stand still while the innovators are at work – in other words there will always be business as usual work to handle along with innovation related work. So how do I prioritise and encourage innovation related work? By offering an incentive. It is also a good way for employees to discover their hidden potential by exploring problems outside of their focus areas.

  • Channel for mentoring and grooming new talent – Slowly over a period of time, this channel can be used as a means of identifying and nurturing talent throughout the organisation. Best Performers who have distinguished themselves through the innovation channel and best placed to play the role of mentors and responsible for grooming new talent.

Let me end with a story which is well known amongst the cloud computing fans. In 2007, the New York Times faced a challenge. It wanted to make available over the web its entire archive of articles, 11 million in all. It had scanned all the articles, producing a huge pile of 4 Terra bytes pile of images in TIFF format. But since TIFF format is poorly suited for online distribution, the NY Times thought of pre-generating these PDF files so that it can be rendered more easily when requested by the customer. That was a huge computing chore, requiring a lot of computer processing time. Fortunately one of the software programmers at NY Times accidentally came to know of this challenge and to make a long story short, was able to use his knowledge of Amazon Cloud Computing facility(gained by generally playing with it) to solve this challenge with the minimal of money and in a very short time.

So in summary - learn to break your organisational barriers and make your biggest challenges known to as many employees as possible. The solutions and the different thinking that comes from the different groups within your organisation will surprise you truly!!!

Try it!! You don't lose anything - you only stand to gain....
Alltop, all the cool kids (and me)

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