Allow employees room to experiment

INNOVATION is often spoken about without its essence being understood. Fortunately, a lot of clutter was cleared up for me at a recent company talk.

The young look at it without much hype as they want to do things differently and adopt to change effortlessly. Millennials are at an advantage as they grew up alongside technology; and technology-led innovations make huge impacts.

That leads to the question if technology and innovation mean the same, at least in the context of our discussion. For innovation to take footing, technology is not a pre-requisite. When we play around with words, we sometimes get caught up with definitions that leave us in a bind when interpretations go in all 10 directions.

To begin with do we mean doing things differently when talking about innovation?

Innovation is not creativity according to the Harvard Business Review. Neither is innovation about ideas. What is innovation then?

The online guru says innovation can be all of these in combination or in isolation; change, alter, employ new measure, transform, metamorphose, modernise, novelise, invent, etc.

Invention is another term often mashed up with innovation. Invention, which can be an idea or a product, is just another saleable item. When it is exploited to add value to people and processes, it becomes an innovation.

Improvement and innovation is another set of mis-marriage of words. In the business world these two terms are used almost interchangeably. It's a trend that's been promoted by companies which profess to be in the innovation business and even by "innovation consultants". But the problem with equating improvement with innovation is that it does a disservice to innovation and the truly successful innovative strategies used by some of the leading firms.

Improvement is NOT innovation, according to innovation gurus. And here's why. First, an improvement that only meets the market standard or reacts to innovation that your competitors have already introduced into the market is NOT innovation. It's playing catch-up.

Second, introducing an improvement that does not significantly differentiate you from your competitors is NOT innovation. It's just an improvement – evolutionary, not revolutionary.

And finally, introducing improvement that may give you a competitive advantage but can also be easily copied by competitors is NOT innovation. It's just a temporary advantage.

Now, creativity is not innovation either but no innovation is possible without some amount of creativity. To adopt innovation in the way we work, live and exist we need to first accept that it is the only way we can make a difference.

How do we create a culture of innovation? Not easy but not impossible. Results may trickle in but the impact may have increasing impact on the bottom-line.

The first thing to do would perhaps be to design the company's vision and mission statements around innovation. The company's core values could be tied to innovation as the springboard. Apart from these, allowing the employees room to experiment would inspire innovation.

In this context, the gross misjudgment that one has to be technically savvy and in high position to explore the potential for innovation has to be dispelled. A small token of appreciation could be given away at town halls to individuals and groups who might have made some small or big innovations that might have led to competitive advantage and provide meaningful differentiation for self, department and/or the organisation.

More importantly, allowing failures is as important as creating room for innovation. Steady education by way of talks and seminars will keep the momentum going.

An author once said: "Innovation is the calling card of the future".