What Is Innovation? A Long, Boring, Sweat-Soaked Story
Creativity Marketing Transformation

What Is Innovation? A Long, Boring, Sweat-Soaked Story


What is innovation? It’s a word that’s tossed carelessly about the business world, an overprescribed mantra that loses actual meaning each time a business leader utters it; brand leaders know they want “innovation” in their companies, but they forget to define what it looks like when they’ve achieved it. Often thought of as the sudden discovery of an idea or shift in mindset, innovation is far from an overnight miracle—nor does it manifest in moments of brilliance by industry-anointed “thought leaders.” It is a long, boring, sweat-soaked story spun by hard-working, risk-taking people. And the only way we will uproot innovation from the land of buzzwords and into meaningful and measurable is if we recognize this reality.

Let’s start treating it this way.

Creating a Culture of Innovation—Across the Globe

Creating a Culture of Innovation Across the Globe

Brands that want to innovate must create a culture that reflects that desire. In her Think with Google article from 2011, Susan Wojcicki, Google’s former Senior Vice President of Advertising (now CEO of YouTube) shared what is at the core of the tech giant’s ability to grow. “As we’ve grown to over 26,000 employees in more than 60 offices, we’ve worked hard to maintain the unique spirit that characterized Google way back when I joined as employee #16.”

Google’s mission? “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” To this day, each one of their programs serves this mission. Gmail arose from a need for Web functionality, improved search, and more storage. AdSense grew from one engineer’s inclusion of ads in his emails.” Wojcicki continues, “We realized that with more sophisticated technology we could do an even better job by devoting additional resources to this tiny project.”

Companies that ask their employees to share their thoughts on improving products and processes will be rewarded with creative, original ideas. Perhaps more importantly, it will foster a culture that makes people feel like they are welcome and encouraged to contribute.

Last year, Catalyst, an international nonprofit with a mission to expand opportunities for women and business, released a report entitled “Inclusive Leadership: The View from Six Countries.” In it, the company sought to understand why employees feel included and excluded, as well as the leadership behaviors of their managers. For the study, Catalyst surveyed over 1,500 employees from six different countries—Australia, China (Shanghai), Germany, India, Mexico, and the United States. All participants were full-time employees, age 22 and older, and employed in companies with more than 50 employees.

As the report found, in all six countries, the more included employees felt, the more innovative they reported being in their jobs. And in every country, employee perceptions of inclusion contributed substantively—more than 40 percent on average—to reports of innovation.

Catalyst 2014 Study - Percentage Contribution of Inclusion to Self-Reported Team Citizenship and Innovation

The two factors that made workers feel most included? Uniqueness and belongingness. Employees, no matter where they are on Earth, want to feel like they bring unique skills to their job as well as that they are part of a unit working toward achieving shared goals.

How do company leaders make sure that happens? They instill these four behaviors in their employees:

  1. Empowerment
  2. Humility
  3. Courage
  4. Accountability

Enabling direct reports to excel in their positions—empowerment—was the number one behavior linked to altruistic leadership, with humility a strong second. Brand leaders should keep these traits top of mind when they are working with their teams. If they do open the door to innovation up to the company, the long-term results will demonstrate more motivated, happier employees who understand that they are an integral part of the brand’s mission.

The findings in the 2015 Employee Recognition Survey by Globoforce, a provider of social recognition solutions, backs up the connection between recognition and results. Of the hundreds of HR professionals surveyed, 39 percent cited employee engagement as their top organizational challenge, second most behind employee retention/turnover. How are they approaching this challenge? By practicing employee recognition.

Eighty-one percent of companies surveyed formally recognize employee accomplishments—the number of companies basing that recognition on values rising from 50 percent in 2012 to 58 percent today.

As the study concludes:

“Companies who make a commitment to recognition and milestone awards are experiencing better results, and seeing differences in measurements of both culture and business results.”

2015 Employee Recognition Survey by Globoforce

Across the board, employee recognition greatly benefits companies. Want to innovate? Take care of your people.

At Skyword’s all-hands company meeting last week we recognized the members of our sales team who met and/or exceeded their sales goals for the quarter and did the same for other departments based on team goals. We also passed on the one trophy to rule them all—the Robert J. Murray Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence (so named—in jest—after Skyword’s president) to our very own Ruben Sanchez for his work over the past three months on the successful redesign of Skyword.com, and much, much more.

Empowerment? Check. Humility? Yup. Courage? Yes. Accountability? That, too.

Organizations should remember that employee recognition manifests in multiple ways—not just through company call-outs each quarter. Recognition should be practiced and consistent. It should be woven into the goal setting and achieving process, and it should be based on company values. Reviewing weekly progress on projects with your direct reports and calling out areas where they’re doing an exceptional job is as important as communicating areas for improvement. In my case, as an editor for the Content Standard, I make an effort to convey to our writers what’s working and what’s not for each piece of content that hits the review queue. Baking continuous constructive feedback into the culture of the site not only improves quality and recognizes good work, but sets an expectation for continuous improvement.

Innovation Is Iteration

Let’s get something straight—innovation stems from iteration. These are not two different choices brands may take to transform their businesses. They should be discussed in the same conversation. More productive than a focus on an intangible concept like innovation is a focus on the iterative processes that make brands seem like they changed the world overnight.

Instead of promising we will innovate within our industry by doing X, Y, and Z, companies must take a measured approach. Set SMART goals, adopt an agile decision-making process, set feedback loops for creatives. In short, make progress a priority.

Innovation is Iteration

Is it easy to commit to iteration? Definitely not. Priorities shift, new goals are introduced, old ones are forgotten. But iteration is what has driven much of the technology industry’s innovation in the last few decades, and therefore, as the chief ingredient of innovation, it is unwise to ignore it. As Forbes writer Bruce Upbin writes in his article, “Silicon Valley Isn’t Innovative, It’s Iterative,” “Perhaps the self-reinforcing nature of these processes is the true driver of iterative development in the Valley, providing a framework whereby idea origination and execution can complement one another by drawing on the successes and failures of previous generations.”

Again and again this formula proves true—generations of products are twisted, tweaked, and improved. And once they enter the mainstream, people incorrectly assume the Innovation Fairy has made a visit. No. Where do we actually get the next industry-changing ideas? From crappy earlier versions made better by creative minds who had the sense to abandon failed features and double-down on what worked.

Before iTunes there was SoundJam MP. Before Slack—the communication app that is taking over offices around the world—there was MSN Messanger and AIM chatrooms. Before Farmville came Super Nintendo’s Harvest Moon. Is Farmville innovative? Well, no—It’s iterative. (Okay, maybe it’s innovative.)

Of course, it might go without saying that the only way brands can iterate is if they have a foundation upon which to make improvements. And if the thing they’re selling isn’t so much a product as it is a service, then what does iteration look like?

This challenge speaks to the importance of documentation. Smart leaders will capture the progress of their services from the first day they’re offered so that they can pinpoint weaknesses and have the ability to improve upon them. This requires gathering feedback from clients at all stages of the service lifecycle—not just when contracts are due to be renewed. Communicating client insight following strategy calls to the appropriate team members who are actively involved in the iteration process is one way.

Customers are your best source for feedback. Don’t be scared to ask—they want to give it to you and have their opinions valued, just like your employees.

We all know that what can be considered truly innovative only deserves that title in hindsight. But it is the attention to detail and commitment to constant improvement that makes the thing worthy of such a title. And that’s something worth paying attention to.

Language Is Power

We may be mentioning it more than ever, but that doesn’t mean we understand what innovation is and how to accomplish it. Language, by nature, is constantly morphing. Connotations and denotations mix and mingle, original meaning gets lost in the never-endingly-knit fabric of words and expressions. And in the business playground, where buzzwords are more common than cubicles, the meaning of a word like innovation is easily unstitched.

Language is powerful—it guides our goals and shapes our understanding of the world around us. Let us use language to tell brand stories of great success and failure, and examine with a wide lens commonly agreed-upon examples of innovation. Let us practice iteration as an integral part of innovation. Let us take a microscope to meaning and celebrate the triumphs of our colleagues.

Then, we may begin to understand it.

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