Lead Innovation with Structure and Process

There is so much potential for innovation right now. Every market and industry experienced some disruption in the past years, and people have been exposed to new ways of working, new ways of thinking, and new ways of living. How can you make sure your organization is leading innovation and not chasing your competitors from behind?

While the impulse may be to resist structure and guidelines for the cause of innovation, the right structure and process enables ideas to flow and gain traction.

Every successful company begins with innovation. How else did the original idea gain traction, blossom, and grow? However, there comes a time in every organization’s life when they are no longer the new kid on the block. Every day seems like work as usual and innovation begins to slow down. There are many studies, articles, and books about facets of company culture and employee attributes that promote innovation and entrepreneurial thinking including: trust, diverse experiences and perspectives, the ability to make connections, growth mindset, experimentation, collaboration, and permission to fail and learn from mistakes.  

How do you begin to transform a company culture when the energy of new ideas and innovation begins to slow or become stagnant? The impulse is to resist imposing too much structure or guidelines on the organization because too much rigidity and bureaucracy slows things down, builds silos, drains creativity, and takes the fun out of work. However, we suggest quite the opposite.  People are more free to think creatively and understand how to do their best work when there is clarity around purpose, communication flow, and talent decisions. Clarity means knowing how to get things done and where to invest time and energy. It means understanding expectations and knowing what activities and behaviors will be encouraged and supported. And, this clarity of knowing, my friends, is structure.

Clear Organization Purpose

When an organization has a clear purpose and vision, it not only motivates employees and ensures everyone is moving in the same ultimate direction, but it also provides critical guard rails around what types of problems to solve and ideas to pursue. It also promotes collaboration because, ultimately, everyone has the same goal.

Look at some of the more innovative organizations, and you will usually see a clear, though often broad, purpose: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” (Google).  “To create the most compelling car company of the 21st century by driving the world’s transition to electric vehicles” (Tesla).  “To be Earth’s most customer-centric company” (Amazon). “To entertain the world” (Netflix).

Autonomy has shown through many studies to be a key indicator of employee satisfaction and enables innovation. You can’t give employees autonomy to be creative without clarity of purpose.

Is there value in researchers who want to pursue discoveries for discovery sake? Absolutely. Organizations need this so that valuable research isn’t dropped before the application is clear, but a clear purpose helps to ultimately direct the findings to useful applications. The 3M example is probably the most well known: business legend has it that the adhesive for post-it notes was developed before the application was clear. The vision for 3M? “Advancing every company, Enhancing every home, Improving every life” (paraphrased). They nailed it. I love post it notes.

Two slightly crumpled post it notes on a plain surface

Defined Communication Channels and Decision-Making

I was talking to a young scientist the other day. He was a recent college graduate and about two years into a position at a large biotechnology company. He thought it was going to be his dream job, but he was feeling pretty negative about it. I asked him for the one thing his employer could change that would make him want to go to work the next day. His answer? “If they would listen to my ideas.” He and his colleagues saw so many changes that would improve the operations of their lab, but every time they brought an idea up to management, it never went anywhere and nothing ever changed.

Most executives acknowledge that there is tremendous value in the ideas of people on the front lines including those closest to the customer, the packaging, or the raw materials. However, our young scientist is far from alone. Most communication and decision-making processes grow organically and many are hierarchy driven. Elon Musk gives his people permission to call anyone in the organization, regardless of level or function – whoever is the best person to resolve whatever problem or task they have.

Few organizations have mapped their communication channels – both formal and informal – for the flow of problem identification, work assignments, and new ideas. There’s the old “suggestion box” idea, but this is really more of a band aid than a solution. The majority of great ideas in organizations never reach the ears of leadership.

Communication channels are closely tied to decision-making processes. Who decides which idea to bring to leadership’s attention and then who decides which ideas to put resources into and pursue? Most organizations don’t know themselves what their decision-making system is. It’s not uncommon to hear “Well, it’s supposed to be____, but it’s really ______ if you actually want to get something done.” This leads to lack of organizational clarity for employees, which is confusing, exhausting, and drains creativity. It also guarantees that innovative ideas from employees outside the majority channel will seldom get heard.

Flatter, less-hierarchical decision-making systems that cross silos and support collaboration and accountability can facilitate innovation. (Check out Zappo’s holacracy or Red Hat’s open meritocracy). Processes that ensure more equitable consideration of projects and ideas to pursue also help. Even in a more traditional management structure, it’s important to have a clear decision-making system so that employees feel free and safe to operate within it and know that their ideas will be heard.

Group of young people gathered around a table smiling at looking at a tablet

Thoughtful and Equitable Talent Programs

One way to define organization culture is the behaviors that are encouraged and celebrated (i.e., recognized and rewarded) – and the negative behaviors that are allowed to happen without repercussions. Based on this definition, there is nowhere a culture of innovation is more molded and reinforced than your talent programs: recruitment and selection, learning and development, promotions and career growth, leadership development, rewards and recognition. If you want a talent program that attracts and enables innovation, your talent programs must support trust, fairness, diversity, learning, and growth.

This begins with consistent processes that are perceived by employees to be fair and aligned with company values. Following our earlier discussion about information flow, behaviors that exemplify the desired communication channels, decision-making, and collaboration should be recognized and rewarded. Should the manager who takes credit for her team’s success be promoted, or the one who coaches their team and brings their ideas up to leadership? How diverse are your researchers, marketers, leadership teams, influencers, decision-makers? Do your talent programs really support and value different perspectives? How are pay and promotion decisions made and is this fair and consistent across the organization?

If you want more innovation and entrepreneurial thinking, don’t run from structure and process, run toward it.  Through structure, process, and guidelines, you can create a work environment that is clear, fair, and easy to navigate…your people’s innovation unleashed!