Since getting married in September, I have been fortunate to get to know, and learn from, a new grandmother-in-law. An incredibly learned woman, specializing in the fields of medicine, nature and life, she goes simply by Nani.
One day while we were driving through the East Bay area of San Francisco, Nani turned to me and started in with an age-old comment “You know, kids these days,” but what came next was not a lament on detachment due to cell phones or obsession with Facebook, but instead a comment that required me to put my college business case hat on and really think about.
“You know, kids these days need nothing. How can you create new things – when you don’t need anything?”
“Kids These Days…” To analyze the first part of this statement, we first need to understand the demographic. There have been numerous books, reports and studies conducted on Millennials and their impact on the workplace – as well as how they attack and solve problems.
At a glance, the desire to innovate is something Millennials have in spades, both driven by their comfort with technology and disdain for mentalities like “this is how it’s always been done.” But at their core, Millennials’ business-related innovations are driven by necessity: the necessity to succeed – and therefore to survive and even thrive.
Where does business necessity come from? “Necessity” on its own is a far too broad a topic to broach here, so for brevity’s sake we will limit necessity to the realm of business. Necessity is defined as “something that you must have or do; in such a way that it cannot be otherwise.” Business necessity follows the same lines, but things can become business necessities that did not start out that way.
In fact, while many business necessities exist because of the industry or business model, others come out of fulfilling things that are customer “wants.” But even wants can be ambiguous. Sentiments from the likes of Steve Jobs and Henry Ford reveal that customer wants – which are actually business needs – may not be best left up to the customer themselves.
In short, business necessity has several tenets: • It is mandatory to be successful or to compete • It may or may not have started out as a necessity • It provides tangible value (either directly or indirectly)
What do we know about innovation? Innovation has been written about ad nauseam. We know companies that are on the leading edge, those who are lagging and what lecture circuits can best make a business succeed, but business people are excellent in 2 key areas:
1. We know how to kill it. Stifling innovation has been an unintended consequence of standardization, overly strict human resources practices and age (of both businesses and their employees). While never optimal, innovation can be stifled when productivity metrics are on the line, time is limited or the wrong person is simply in the wrong role.
The Harvard Business Review highlights a few bad behaviors that I think are key: • Invoke history – letting previous failures deter new ideas • Confine strategy – letting it only be discussed by a small group of advisors • Blame problems on people • Think you know everything about the business
2. We know how to foster it (albeit not as well as we like to think we do). Innovation is a great buzzword – it flows well in meetings, graces PowerPoint slides and provides material for endless speaking engagements. But fostering innovation in the workplace is HARD. It takes time, effort and the dedication of resources in already resource-constrained environments. In today’s fast-paced businesses, scheduled free time for thinking or innovation is first on the chopping block. Entrepreneur published an infographic that showed some key trends explaining some factors contributing to innovation challenges: • 61% of CEOs say innovation is a priority or primary focus of the business • Yet 55% of businesses don’t seek innovation opportunities • Even higher, 66% of businesses don’t have well defined innovation strategies (source)
The biggest reasons? • Resource constraints (time and people) • Budget constraints • Lack of structured innovation processes and procedures
“Leading retailers do not let the pressures of running the business relegate innovation and continuous improvement to a back seat.”
The publication goes on to explain that leading companies frequently dedicate specific resources to focus on innovation by creating Business Excellence teams. Some of the most typical responsibilities of these teams include business concept incubation, market and product testing, initiative identification, planning and execution and system administration. This is an excellent example of a very structured approach to fostering innovation, but there are numerous examples of creating an innovative culture throughout the entire organization.
Nordstrom recently began morphing its “Innovation Lab” and shifting many of those employees into other roles at the company – most notably, the Customer Experience Center (CEC) with an objective of widening the impact of innovation. According to the company, “Rather than just a team focused on innovation, it’s now everyone’s job.” (source) When employees feel open to giving ideas, they are more likely to feel ownership and a vested interest in the organization and be more engaged overall.
Further, in a study of 142 countries, Gallup found that only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged in their work (30% in the United States) – an open environment to innovation can improve this percentage and create opportunities for employees to feel more like owners. (source) One of the employees surveyed noted: “I don’t feel like I work (here), this is my company.”
Buy-in like that should be music to any organization’s ears.
Tying it all Together Necessity does drive innovation, but necessity itself does not exist in a vacuum. Innovation has to be created, driven to and fostered.
Does a lack of necessity stifle innovation? Short Answer: Yes. Long Answer: No. When all needs are met, the innovative drive slows down. But like true consumers, our wants and therefore a business’ needs, are always in full swing, creating new necessities – and thus continuing the cycle.
Nani may not have realized the depth of acumen in her comment – or maybe she did. Regardless, sit back and take a look at your company with an objective eye:
And overall, what is the impact on your employees and your customers – plus your competitive position and bottom line – of not fostering an innovative culture? The answers to these questions can uncover a real desire – or more appropriately, a real “necessity” – for developing a truly innovative company.