Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Conditions that drive innovation.

As technology becomes ever more powerful, convenient and complex, a broader knowledge base is required of all employees. Increasingly, the skills of the labor force and their ability to imagine new futures provide companies with their most valuable competitive weapon. Smart companies develop smart, satisfied employees with broad-bandwith capabilities by expanding their skills across traditional functional boundaries (by blending, for example, expertise in technical design, quality engineering and manufacturing operations). The prized employee is one who learns quickly and continuously, works collaboratively with others, and is comfortable in an environment of innovation, experimentation and risk.

This places a premium on a company’s ability to recruit, retain and develop the best people available. It also requires a corporate culture that encourages people with diverse ideas and capabilities to learn from each other and create new opportunities together. Leading companies combine talent and technology in ways that generate much higher profits per employee than was possible in the past. They start by asking, “How do I hire talent that I can profit from? How do I create an organization where innovation is truly everyone’s responsibility?”

To see how easy it is for employees to drive innovation in your company, talk with some first-level employees and ask them the following questions:

• The first question to ask is, “How have you been trained as a business innovator? What investment has the company made in teaching you how to innovate?”

• The second question is, “If you have a new idea, how much bureaucracy do you have to go through to get a small amount of experimental capital? How long is it going to take you to get 20 percent of your time and $5,000 to test your idea? Is that a matter of months or can it happen very easily?”

• The third question is, “Are you actually being measured on your innovative performance or your team’s innovation? How does this influence how you’re paid?"

• And finally ask, “Does the way management works in this company tend to help you work as an innovator or get in the way?”

Whenever I’ve asked these questions to first-line employees, I’ve usually found that in most companies there’s still a big gap between the rhetoric of innovation and its reality.

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