Question Time with Mentor John – Improving innovation

Most companies state that innovation is a key priority, often without being aware of what this really means. From a business standpoint, innovation involves implementing creative ideas that add value to the company – often through the development of new products and services that lead to increased revenues, or improved processes that help to reduce operational costs. What strategies can businesses put in place to allow innovation to be more than just a buzzword? Mentor John shares his thoughts:

Can I learn to be more innovative? What specific skills sets and behaviour should I nurture if I wish to increase innovation by increasing my CQ (Creativity Quotient)?

Innovation in a business is a culture that pervades the whole thinking of those who run it and those who work in it. It is not, as so many appear to think, a Department of freaky people. So rule No 1 if you want to increase your innovation is to work with innovative people. The common characteristic of such people is their incessant curiosity and their never-ending questions. Lee Kuan Yew was such a person. He wanted to know the history of, reasons for and potential of everything he heard about. When you have that kind of enquiring mind you innovate.

The skills you need are first Perception – not just seeing but looking beyond what you can see. To do this you must imagine as you see. Those who invent stories perceive beyond the obvious. They make the mundane fascinating. They explore their minds to create ideas. They perceive relationships, which is exactly what creativity is. The second skill you need is the ability to ask yourself one question – AND? When you have learnt something, described something, discovered something you must ask yourself ‘what next’. That is what ‘AND’ stands for.

The third skill you need is to be curious. Ask yourself what makes the people you meet tick. Think about what is the future of the human race if we eliminate all the things we don’t like? Could our senses survive perpetual happiness? What makes us so special? How do we know that?

How do I build a corporate culture that encourages creativity and innovation at the workplace? Are there specific initiatives or programmes?

You cannot assign innovation to a person or a group of people. The culture is an enquiring one. It is ingrained in the business – by the boss. It asks ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘how’, ‘when’ about everything. When we are mentoring and coaching people we do it as far as possible by asking questions. It was good enough for Socrates, it is good enough for us.

The leader determines the culture of the business. That is why great leaders are so difficult to follow. They set a standard of innovation their followers are afraid they cannot reach. Often, they don’t try. The programme you need is called a strategy for the business. It is a purpose and a destination. It does not inhibit any ideas and it never says ‘stupid’. Even mistakes are great lessons. Just as every individual has some questions they should ask themselves once a year so every business should do the same. The questions are:
● What is the purpose of the business? If the answer is ‘to make money’ the business will fail. Making money is a consequence not a purpose.
● What has the business done in the last twelve months that has been really innovative?
● What future events are we looking forward to that will rejuvenate the business?
● When will that happen?

I am generally averse to risk, which has not been a bad trait, as it has kept my company running smoothly. However, I’m aware that this can be a barrier to innovation and I do see the competition catching up. What should I do?

Risk aversion is neither good nor bad – what you do with your risk propensity decides its value. How you treat risk will depend on how much trouble you take to work out what the risk really is. Gamblers don’t want to know the chances of success because they might be deterred from gambling if they did.

Learn to calculate risk, not to avoid it but to make an informed guess of the cost of taking it. If you cannot afford to do so, don’t. But be clear, you can take more risks than you think you can.

How do I measure and track innovativeness in the workplace?

Keep yourself informed about developments in your industry. Make friends with your suppliers – they know what is going on. Gather your best brains in your company together twice a year, or more often if you can afford it, to spend a couple of days brainstorming what will happen next. You will certainly have the talent to learn. See that they like you enough to want to tell you.

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