The term innovation is one of those corporate buzzwords we’ve all heard so much that it can fly right over our heads. But it’s worth focusing on—because, like oxygen to human beings, innovation is required to keep businesses alive.
In the simplest terms, innovation happens when you take a fresh approach rather than doing the same thing as everyone else in your field. The rewards for daring to be different can be great. For example, when Spencer Johnson and I wrote The One Minute Manager, we broke strict rules in publishing. First, we wrote a business book in parable form, something that wasn’t being done at that time. Second, the book was only about 100 pages long—way too short, according to industry experts in the 1980s. Third, even though the book was short, we priced it the same as a traditional hardcover book.
“Nobody’s going to buy a short book at that price!” many publishers said.
But those publishers were wrong. After Spencer and I appeared on the TODAY show, the book immediately went on The New York Times bestseller list. It stayed there for two years and became one of the best-selling business books in publishing history. Our innovations not only paid off, they also paved the way for a new generation of business writers.
Invest in Your Organization’s Future
Innovation isn’t easy—you have to set aside time to think and allow the creative process to percolate. It also requires time to experiment with and test your new ideas. It’s a lot less trouble to simply copy what other people are doing—but if you’re not willing to innovate, you run the risk of having outdated products, services, and business models.
One way to protect your offerings from becoming obsolete is to build innovation into your organizational structure. Let me give you an example.
When she was president of our company in the early 2000s, my wife, Margie, created the Office of the Future—a think tank that looked at trends five, ten, and twenty years out. The research and recommendations of this group guided our leadership team over the years.
Thanks to the Office of the Future (now called the Innovation Lab), our company wasn’t caught completely flat-footed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. By that time we had already anticipated online learning and invested in digital technologies. All the energy we had put into delivering our products and services online helped us survive when classroom training was shut down by the virus.
Leaders need to watch their tendency to allocate too many dollars and resources to sales and marketing. Remember to leave room in your schedule and budget for research, development, and innovation. While these activities may not immediately increase the bottom line, they can save your organization from extinction in the long run.
Encourage a Culture of Innovation
The most successful companies in the world—Apple, Tesla, Amazon—foster a culture of innovation. In an innovative culture, leaders encourage everyone—not just a designated few—to contribute new ideas.
No matter what a person’s job title is, they are more than just a pair of “hired hands”—they come with brains, too! I believe people are eager to use their brains at work if their leaders would only let them.
One of my most popular social media posts is a photo of a woman in a business jacket clearing a hurdle on a racetrack. The caption reads, “Hire smart people, train them properly, then get out of their way.” I think the post hit a nerve because too often leaders don’t take advantage of people’s drive and creativity. They impose their way of doing things, which doesn’t allow people to create new, better approaches.
Steve Jobs, the founder of the most innovative company in the world (Apple), said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
When a direct report comes to you with a new idea, welcome it. Help them think through the risks and rewards. If you proceed with the innovation, be sure to measure the results. Even if the idea fails, you can focus on what was learned from the effort and applaud your direct report for trying something new.
No matter how innovative your service or product is, time will toss it into the dustbin of history unless you keep it fresh and relevant. When The One Minute Manager was published in 1982, it represented the cutting edge of leading people. Yet by 2015 the third secret—The One Minute Reprimand—was a relic of the 20th century’s top-down management style. Recognizing that leadership today is more of a partnership, Spencer Johnson and I changed the third secret to The One Minute Re-Direct and reissued the book as The New One Minute Manager.
Take a look at the work you’re doing today. What products, processes, or systems might benefit from a fresh approach? Don’t hesitate to innovate.
Editor's Note: Would you like to learn more about Blanchard's approach for encouraging everyone in your organization to be an innovator? Check out Fearless Innovation™ on the Blanchard website!
About the AuthorMore Content by Ken Blanchard