Innovation is a hot commodity. Many organizations have figured out how to make innovation a part of their strategy, while others are still not sure how to create the culture that produces it.

Jack Cox recently wrote about CES 2020 and Delta’s keynote address their impressive innovation efforts. What they're doing begs what does it takes for enterprises to be successful in innovating and disrupting the marketplace? In Delta’s case, they have turned the stodgy old flight industry into a digital transformer, improving customer experiences and enhancing employee satisfaction.

While some inventions and innovations seem to be born out of thin air, a culture of innovation is not. It requires dedicated support from leadership, careful planning, conscious effort, and a mindset that you’re investing in your people, customer, and the future. If a company that operates life critical systems using technology with roots back to the 1950s (when work on Sabre started) can find new ways to innovate, then your business can, too. The first step of course is simply deciding that building a culture of innovation is critical so that your people feel inspired and supported. But where do you go from there to truly start reaping the benefits?

Four Keys to Impactful Innovation

1. Start At The Top

Top executives need to both possess and inspire enthusiasm for innovation and place a company-wide focus on it. They also need to create a culture where it’s okay to fail. In many organizations a single failure is enough to end a career or threaten pensions. Those organizations will always struggle with innovation.

Executives aren’t the only ones who have great ideas. Putting a structure in place to harvest new ideas from anywhere is key. Front-line workers that deal daily with customers might be more likely than the higher ups to have insight into what they need. Capturing new ideas can be done by giving employees blocks of time to work on innovative projects, similar to Google, creating internal Innovation Challenges, like we do at CapTech, or by following Chick-Fil-A’s lead and building a Technology Innovation Center.

2. Reward New Ideas

It should be easy to connect the dots between enterprise opportunity or dysfunction and employee compensation. It's natural for people to want to be rewarded for going the extra mile. If you're not compensating or tangibly rewarding innovation, why would your employees want to take risks?

Unfortunately, some companies have done the opposite ─ implemented compensation strategies that strongly discourage risk-taking or internal disruption of established norms. Therefore, they have very few people that will stick their necks out to innovate.

To combat this, companies need to actively reward employees for sharing new ideas by recognizing them ─ in newsletters, on the website, and/or at team meetings with awards. Advancement opportunities need to be given and innovative employees should be allowed to present their ideas to upper management. Of course, few things inspire folks to innovate, more than money. Even in the 90s Philips employees received a $5000 bonus for every patent application received.

3. Scout Innovation

Great ideas and new technology don’t just walk in the door. Companies should have innovation scouts. Just like you have talent scouts to find great leadership talent, a technology scout is constantly on the lookout for emerging technologies that could be used to innovate your business. The technology scout should be very familiar with your customers, your business, and your pain points, but also able to cut through the flood of hype and find the hidden gems that can set you apart. An example of how to do this is to methodically walk the halls of CES’ Eureka Park where all the startups show their nascent products and ideas. Hire tech scouts who can lurk in Silicon Valley and discover interesting ideas that can advance your innovation agenda.

4. Don’t Innovate Just for Innovation’s Sake

Innovation without deeply understanding your customer has a high risk of being wasted innovation.

Delta conducted extensive user journey studies, including scientifically analyzing travelers’ emotional states. To really get to know your customers, you need to know how your customers feel about interacting with your brand, and with your employees. You may think that you understand your customer, but you are not your customer. In many ways, employees are more forgiving than customers; at the very least they have very different emotional responses to their experiences with their employer.

There is another advantage of examining the emotional journey of your customer and your employees; it can create a virtuous cycle between customers and employees. If your customers are happy, that rubs off on the employees. If your employees are happy, that rubs off on the customers.

It’s Never Too Soon to Start

Companies can't wait for their competitors to find the next cool idea. The pace of digital transformation and innovation is fast, and the opportunity and excitement that comes with it is exhilarating. Seize the future, don’t get left behind – build your culture of innovation now!

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