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How to unleash the power of corporate innovation

By Peter Opondo | May 19th 2021
Waterless 'drinking point' that has been dry for years monumentally stands outside Nyayo House in Nairobi in a picture taken on May 18, 2021. All water points that were installed in town have been destroyed by vandals, leaving pedestrians who were meant to benefit from the several drinking points thirsty. (Denish Ochieng, Standard)

Together with a group of friends, most of them in middle level to senior management roles, we recently discussed innovation.

Our discussion centred on what could be done to make corporates more innovative in the face of relentless disruptive forces. Should it be mandatory for every organisation to have a fully-fledged innovation department? Who should own and champion innovation projects in organisations? What skills and behaviours are required for one to be regarded an innovator? Should more techies, mavericks and iconoclasts be incorporated for innovation to happen?

It wasn’t long before we realised without a common understanding of what innovation meant we could make little progress.

We settled on a deceptively simple definition of innovation by expert Scott D Anthony: “Innovation is something different that has impact or creates value.” The operating words being “different” and “impact”. An innovation should be different to a specific target, be it a customer, supervisor, organisation or community. Impact or value means some measurable result is achieved, be it revenue, progress, improved performance or process. Without impact there is no innovation, it is just “innovation theatre”.

Once we agreed on the definition, it followed that anyone and everyone in an organisation can and should be an innovator. “You can find innovation everywhere if you have the right language to describe it. Innovation isn’t the job of the few; it is the responsibility of the many. Accountants can do it. Not-for-profits can do it. Children can do it. You can too. And today’s fast changing world demands that all of us improve our ability to do it — and that all organisations create cultures that support it,” wrote Anthony and coauthors in their latest book Eat, Sleep, Innovate.

World’s biggest untapped source of energy is not the wind, water, or sun, it is inside organisations, with unutilised, constrained and contained innovation.

So the first thing to do to unleash the innovation energy trapped inside organisations is to put in place systems and processes that empower every employee to participate in innovation.

These could be inspiration-in-doses events like “hackathons”, where groups of different people regularly gather to collaborate in computer programing, as is the case at Facebook. It could also be having regular internal innovation workshops where people in different departments or fields are encouraged to collaborate and pitch new business ideas. To make innovation a daily practice, tech giant Amazon encourages its employees to use “working backwards” plan to thrash out ideas and test their viability. An employee with a product idea is required to outline a vision of the product by filling an imaginary press release detailing specifics of the product and how it addresses particular customer needs. A team of internal colleagues then evaluates the viability of the idea and gives feedback, and whether it will get funding.

The second thing to do is embed key behaviours that foster innovation into the organisational culture. Curiosity is one such behaviour. Employees should always be encouraged to question the status quo and consistently search for better and different ways to do things. “What if…?” and “how might we…?” should be part of the organisational vocabulary.

Customer obsession is another essential behaviour. No effort should be spared to understand real customer needs and problems. Walking in customers’ shoes, feeling where it pinches and providing solutions should be an internal mantra. The third behaviour essential for innovation is collaboration. Great ideas and solutions emerge when people with different expertise, views and backgrounds work together to tackle challenges. Design your organisation in such a manner that people from different departments and fields regularly meet and exchange ideas. When ideas mate, innovation emerges.  


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