Innovation is, without a doubt, one of the fields which has most evolved in recent years. Like a prediction come true, increased innovation in the ecosystem has triggered a world which moves at lightning speed, where any product, service or business can change drastically from one day to the next, be surpassed or become completely obsolete. Many of the barriers which previously made this problem somewhat tolerable, such as borders or lack of information, have disappeared. Globalisation and global competition are no longer just a figure of speech: they are an evident reality in our daily lives.
Culture of Innovation today
Building a culture of innovation today is nothing like it was before. Years ago, many companies simply did not innovate: they did things as they had always done them, at most adding certain elements or new developments that allowed them to basically do the same thing more quickly or with improved quality. Innovation as such was confined, in companies where it was actually talked about, to a specific department, where a group of people with experience tried to work out which of such innovative elements might affect them, allow them to improve a particular aspect of the value chain, and, ultimately, improve results. In other cases, innovation was merely a question of inspiration, the result of intuition or a discovery by the founder of a company, the strategic acquisition of another company, or the hiring of somebody with a specific expertise, etc.
Change of Times
The phrase “times have changed” is especially evident today: it’s not so much that times have changed, rather that times change almost every day. Today, staff are divided into those who know and understand what’s going on and what processes can affect their company’s business, and those who just hear about it or, worse still, who don’t even hear about it. Today, as in the Red Queen’s race in “Through the looking glass”, we have to run fast every day not in order to advance, but simply to stay put. Evidently successful people such as Warren Buffett or Bill Gates claim that they must spend at least five hours per week learning, and in fact, consider it is irresponsible not to do so. Even if it is not our ambition to be the most successful investor in history or one of the richest people in the world, it seems more obvious by the day that the idea of staying in a job simply because “we have studied a career or a master’s degree” or because “we have so many years of experience” is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
Few comments have caused me more professional dismay than those of a participant in a course I imparted many years ago to a group of people who had recently passed the State exams to become Property Registrars. When I asked why he had scarcely prepared the subject under discussion, his reply was simply: “Sir, I have already studied everything I had to study in life”. This young property registrar obviously believed that what he had studied to pass the State exams would do him for the rest of his life, and that he therefore did not need to study anything else, with this being enough for him to keep up a productive activity which would generate benefits and provide value to society. But I honestly have my doubts that this is so, even in professions as regulated as the property register. But if there’s something clear to me, it’s that I don’t want to work in a company with somebody like that. And if that happens, then it will mean that I’m not in the right place.
Innovation in Companies
If we agree on the fact that staying put is both uninteresting and increasingly risky for company employees, the risk for companies is even greater. The dynamics of innovation have become crucial for companies: today, not only is there competition for sales, but also for positioning in terms of innovation. Not having an appropriate profile as an innovative company can mean losing opportunities for sales, for forming alliances or attracting talent, and become a step on the road to irrelevance. Companies adopt different structures to ensure innovation: some centralise innovation, others share it, others change it into a market or holding, but in all these successful companies, there seems to be a common bottom line, though it might seem like stating the obvious: innovative companies are made up of innovative people. If they are not, innovation is not sustainable, and the company will run into trouble.
So, what do we do to stimulate innovation processes?
And to spread the message of commitment throughout the company? The statement “If you can’t stay innovative, don’t work here” might be good for placing on the wall, but it doesn’t in itself bring about the necessary discipline or give any clear instructions. To progress from ideology to action, we must take on specific commitments.
We must ensure, for example, that our staff read what they need to read, are aware of whatever is going on in the world that affects them, and that they broaden their mind with additional reading material other than that provided by the company. Many heads think more than one: department or corporate newsletters should include clippings from relevant articles, blogs, virtual noticeboards, etc. to ensure that when innovation materialises and becomes a real option for the company, all staff understand it, know what we’re talking about and see the logic of committing to it. Moreover, in order to go deeper than mere superficial knowledge, it will be necessary put in place training processes, regular workshops or an offer of relevant subject matter with clear objectives for our staff. Working for the company isn’t simply about doing your job: it’s also about being up to date.
Innovative companies learn to learn, they practice it every day. This is the only way to keep up their strength, create discipline, standardise a certain attitude and take it on. The nature of work will change enormously in the coming years, and a vocation for innovation will be one of its defining elements. Companies that understand this and are able to put it into practice will be much closer to sustainable success.