What is the key to successful innovation?
What's the secret to innovation? Is it all about having work spaces peppered with chill-out zones, ping-pong tables and climbing walls? Actually, the truth is far more down to earth.
There's a myth that floats around in business circles sometimes. It goes like this: Visionaries and other creative types are being suffocated by corporate structures. You simply need to leave them alone to get on with it. Set them free to run with their ideas and they'll deliver the kind of tech innovation that'll make Apple's pips squeak.
Now there might be an element of truth to this - I know a lot of talent people who've felt stifled working for global enterprises. It's also correct that brilliant thinkers often need time to get smart ideas off the ground. But it's not true that they should be left alone if you want the best results.
Here are three guiding principles for nurturing and harnessing innovation:
1) Accept mistakes but not incompetence
People often associate innovation with breakthrough inventions that change the world. But flashes of genius are more commonly seen in how companies rethink everyday activities to save time, money and improve results radically.
If talented members of your team want to attempt to fix problems or rise to a new challenge, let them try within time or funding limits. Accept that failure is part of the learning process. However things turn out, you'll discover important facts along the way about your business.
But never accept incompetence. By that, I mean behaviour like someone spending money without approval, acting unethically, failing to answer requests for information, hiding progress, promising updates that never materialise or being sloppy. Innovators must be competent, serious and diligent.
2) Balance freedom of expression with brutal honesty
Bold ideas need to be subjected to intensive scrutiny, checked for weaknesses and run through a series of potential disaster scenarios. But attempts at innovation will unravel quickly if members of your team take it personally and go into a meltdown at the first blast of constructive criticism.
Robust debate should be seen as part of the innovation journey. It's arrogant to think that one person has all the answers. But a team of people - with the company's best interests at heart and free from politics - will help you narrow down the ideas to the best ones. Tough talk will save you from making expensive mistakes down the line.
3) Maintain teamwork as well as individual accountability
Collaboration shouldn't mean a passive, lumbering consensus - where a few people do everything while others duck responsibility in readiness for the blame game. Innovation relies on agility with decisions made quickly.
Management needs to define the roadmap at the start, setting out the core objectives and making individuals own key actions. They should assure everyone that failure is OK and openness is part of the process, so staff feel empowered and not exposed or silenced. This can prove to be a 'coming of age' moment for some of your team - enabling the real innovators to shine through.
Do these principles work?
Yes, absolutely. Over the past three years, I've followed this approach with companies in the UK and mainland Europe, shaping products and services in exciting ways with positive results.
There's far more to innovation, of course. You must listen to the voice of customer (internal or external), be lean and efficient, and have a relentless focus on continual improvement.
But with a few successes under your belt, innovation will become part of your business culture - and it'll happen naturally. Then it's time to wheel out that ping-pong table.