Be Cool to Innovate

Date:   Monday , November 17, 2008

Innovation is one of those words that we all use. However, it is often confused with the term “Invention”, which is defined as creating something new, something that has never existed before. Innovation to me is a successful exploitation of an existing or new ideas, new technology, design and best practices that enables businesses to compete effectively in the global environment.

Equating innovation with change is only part of the story. Change happens all the time whether we are aware of it or not. What one can observe and do in the context of a novel occurrence or insight might very well lead to innovation.

In practical terms innovation is of three types in the industry - Incremental enhancement on product or process, new product and new processes. Incremental enhancement on products is typically where most companies follow in order to keep the revenue stream coming while they attempt to bet on “newer ones”. New product is well understood and we all know it when it succeeds in market place! New processes are becoming far more and more critical in the global environment and outsourcing! All of these innovations usually are done in a customer centric environment.

There is not a single company that would say, “they are not customer centric”... The fundamental difference is the “listening skills” between these companies, which make some more successful than others around customer centric innovation.

In process innovation typically growth has a context. Processes should not only lead to increased turnover or profits but also lead to increase in efficiency, productivity and quality. One of the key things that engineers and especially leaders have to think in the process of innovation is, how to do more with the same amount of people, (or lesser) with increased competency, efficiency and creative measures. Leaders need to think creatively, whether the innovation is going to make the organization productive or is it a good idea for just the innovation’s sake that can be patented.

Product innovation is a lot better understood and lot of companies provides a structured way to foster such innovation. The other commonly used approach is merger and acquisition to stay ahead in a particular market space and also incubate internally on certain advanced technologies hoping some would make it big. Forming small teams coming out different departments is another way - but the bigger the company is the more difficult it is to achieve this. Everyone usually understands the over-arching goals but the inter-departmental barriers come in the way of “where do I fit in the goals.”

In context of innovation, company managers and leaders need to play a guiding role. Former U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, quoted on leadership, “Great leaders are almost great simplifiers who cut through debate, argument, and doubt and offer solutions that everybody can understand. If you don't have such leadership in place then you cannot fasten the innovation.” Innovation and performance require inspirational leadership, strong management skills, a highly trained and motivated workforce that promotes diversity and fair treatment. Having the courage to cut through the company politics and state clear facts in the business framework is almost mandatory!

Traits to watch for as barriers for innovation:
1. Fear of trying, risk and making mistakes.
2. Fear of change.
3. Fear of being laughed at.
4. Fear of appearing stupid by proposing something that is not possible.
5. Fear of showing ignorance.
6. Fear of showing personal thoughts.
7. Jealousy of colleagues.
8. Never done before, don't know how to do - holding on to past successes - complacency.
9. People feeling indifferent and apathetic about their work.

Free participation is extremely important in any organization. For this an organization needs to create an open source where everybody can contribute suggestions to access the project. Go to the whiteboard, when engineers come to office, ask about the problem, ask questions and take suggestions. Focus on what you want to do and what you love to do. This way leaders and managers can establish a congenial and cool atmosphere in the organization.

Ability to learn constantly from the environment is another key factor for people to be able to innovate. Leaders need to create an atmosphere of humility, constant introspection, healthy paranoia - All these ensure the engineers have a constant respect for learning from each other.

In small companies (or start ups) - the environment is usually set up for innovation. The things to watch out there are
1. “EGO between the creative minds coming in way of companys’ success.”
2, Need to have a leader (head) who is practical and knows how to balance between “paralytic technical innovation VS making to the market to be profitable.”
3. Consistent teamwork attitude amongst the smart “techies.”

Cool? Generally, the tag line of “Be Cool” goes with young IT professionals. However, it is applicable on managers and leaders too. Have informal coffee chats, hall way talks, learn to understand what your engineer does… and listen to him/her - As the more cool and down to earth you (manager) are the more innovative will be the environment.
So chill.

Sri Hosakote is the Senior Director Service Provider Routing Tech Group, Cisco Systems