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An Entrepreneur's Thoughts on Cultivating Innovation in the Fortune 500

An Entrepreneur's Thoughts on Cultivating Innovation in the Fortune 500

Jun 22 2014

I was recently invited to speak to a group of executives at a Fortune 50 company on innovation and engendering an innovative environment. I was hesitant at first because I am an entrepreneur and I have never worked for a big company. What value could I bring to this group? I then realized that anyone who innovates and develops new products or technologies is an entrepreneur. Now they are not entrepreneurs in the classical sense of the word. But remember that an entrepreneur is someone who assumes a risk. When you are innovate you have to take risks. Bringing a concept to senior management that is going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars of investment requires a risk. You are risking your credibility and your career. If that project blows up, guess who is going to be blamed?

So after I thought about it a while, I was comfortable that I could bring value in a conversation with this group. Innovation and creativity just require risk. Any time we challenge the status quo there will be significant resistance. Humans are conditioned not to innovate. Ask any entrepreneur. You find that your friends and family have ALL the reasons your idea will not work. The flaws in your plan and concept become immediately apparent, and they are suddenly an expert on why you should really just get a nice and secure job.

The innovator in a large organization in some ways assumes more risk than the traditional entrepreneur that starts a company. Being accustomed to a nice paycheck, and then risking that with "rocking the boat" is a significant consideration. Many companies develop a corporate culture that rewards conformity. Innovators do not conform. Many corporate cultures develop a risk avoidance environment. Innovators assume risks.

So the question was posed, how can we cultivate a culture of innovation in a big company? I would posit the following recommendations:
1. Make sure that the leadership has communicated that an environment of innovation is desired.
2. Make sure that the actions match the words.
3. Make sure that innovation is open to the worker bees as well as the queen bees.
4. Beware of cultural traps- a worker is only working if they are on site. If they have to be "on-site" make sure that the environment is conducive to creativity.
5. Don't frown upon naps. Creativity is a direct result of brain activity. Here in the Unites States, the worker that naps is lazy. It is amazing what a 15 minute nap can do for brain function.
6. Create a space where the "energy" is right for creativity. Now don't get me wrong. I am not a Fung Shui fanatic, but I absolutely believe that our surrounding environment effects our mood and our well being. I spend a lot of time working from Panera bread. Is it because they have great food? No. Is it because they have great business tools? No. It is because the "energy" of the space is conducive to work for me. I believe that there are means of creating spaces that are conducive to creativity. Places where the energy draws people and brings out the best in them.
7. Make sure your people understand the product development process. I am a huge believer in "begin with the end in mind". For a good idea to make it to market, it is a long and treacherous road. Help your people to understand what that road is. They don't have to be experts, but it will help them to understand the process.
8. Empower innovation. Make sure that your supervisors and middle managers understand what powers innovation. Often time it is this group that inhibits innovation. They most likely are not the source of the innovative ideas (they absolutely could be), but make sure that they recognize the issues associated with innovations, and train them to help pull in the same direction for cultivating an innovative environment.
9. Communicate and demonstrate that risk is acceptable. Remember that about 99 out of 100 good ideas fail. Also remember that the individual that comes up with the most ideas that failed, is likely to be the person that comes up with the idea that will be a success.

Now forgive me for stating the obvious (and for being cutesy), but innovation is a state of mind. It is not something that can be created by throwing money at it, or by constructing a building and giving the building a name with "innovation" in it. It is a culture that requires cultivation, commitment and deep understanding.

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