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How to develop a culture of innovation

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This guest post is by Randal Moss, who has helped organizations big and small develop innovation programs to become truly creative workplaces. He is a co-author of “The Future of Nonprofits: Innovate and Thrive in the Digital Age.” Check out the book at its website and Facebook page.

Innovation: It’s a hot-button word in every small business — and in nonprofits, where I come from.

It used to be that the word “innovation” could grab the ear and eye of every executive this side of the Mississippi. But as companies undertook and struggled with innovation makeovers, innovation became a scary word. So instead, their offices took the easy route and became “transformative,” “re-energized” or went through a “renaissance.”

These are all nice terms, but innovation actually refers to a specific program — one that every office, even nonprofits, can adopt. With a little perspective and a good roadmap, you will feel the tingle in your toes once again when you hear it.

1. Redefine innovation

To kick off a top-flight innovation program, you have to reintroduce the core concepts of innovation to the entire organization. Innovation, at its core, is a cultural imperative that draws in participation from every nook and cranny of the organization. It’s about coupling ideas with challenges and creating solutions. So start creating the conditions to gather ideas. (Hint: A “suggestion box” won’t quite cut it.)

2. Get your head out of the cube

To develop a culture of innovation, get your staff to stop working and start exploring. To find great ideas, your staff needs to be spending time “cool-hunting” on the Web, attending conferences, participating in special interest groups — all on the company dime (I promise, you’ll get a return on your investment).

For example, Google, a truly innovative company, gives its employees up to 20% of their time to work on projects of special interest. One of these special interest projects gave birth to Gmail.

In our book, “The Future of Nonprofits: Innovate and Thrive in the Digital Age,” David Neff and I talk about how awareness within an organization bolsters the pipeline of new ideas. So to start innovating, launch an internal awareness program to bring your organization’s challenges to the surface. The creative problem-solving that follows will foster that magic innovation.

3. Create an innovation structure

According to a recent McKinsey Report, the main challenge organizations face when attempting to innovate is a formal structure through which they can develop an idea. So at the office, develop a formal structure that evaluates, develops, and supports innovative ideas.

According to most companies, their workers are adept at developing ideas. But they are fairly inept at evaluating and testing those ideas to determine which ones have true value. For instance: Countless businesses resist social media marketing because, while they have some ideas, they have no way to test and evaluate their Twitter plans, “mom blog” campaigns or Facebook applications.

An innovation structure attracts, and then evaluates, ideas against very specific business criteria: Revenue potential, scalability, how it would integrate into existing systems, what business problems it solves and the potential market.

A great structure also provides the idea with some business support and seed-funding to prototype the concept and see if it actually delivers on the promised value. By spending minimal dollars on a shortened prototype timeline, companies can quickly ascertain the true value of an innovation before they sink major time and resources into a project.

4. So get going already!

Innovation is not tantamount to tearing down and rebuilding your entire corporate structure. In fact, you can start small right now. Let’s review:

  • Make “awareness activities” part of everyone’s job description.
  • Set aside development  money for innovation grants.
  • Create a team to set  criteria and review the grant submissions.
  • Reward those who develop  breakthrough ideas.

When you understand how uncomplicated and accessible innovation is, you will begin to see the possibilities in a whole new light.