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Innovation is one of the cool organizational buzzwords of our day. Who isn’t for it?

Peter Drucker, the great management guru, once said, “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” In every organization, innovation is critical. After speaking to Terry Roberts, executive vice president of innovation at Veterans United, I learned innovation also needs to be well qualified. We need to add a few words with innovation if we want to increase the chances for successful implementation.

Roberts was gracious enough to share a few of those words and ideas that he works hard to apply in his world that may have broader application for all of us.


Innovation is everyone’s job: Sometimes leaders think innovation can be compartmentalized into a single department or person, but truly innovative organizations understand creativity isn’t limited to any one person or group, and the best results occur when everyone is thinking with an eye toward improvement.


Incremental innovation: People can easily become enamored with the thought of discovering that next big thing that will change everything for the better, but this mindset creates a high-risk (typically low-reward) scenario that rarely brings about the hoped-for success. Rather, consistently innovative leaders and companies encourage smaller incremental improvements that leverage the present knowledge of the workforce in ways that makes everyone’s lives a bit easier.


Process innovation: When thinking about innovation, many people think in terms of things, but what actually leads to a culture of innovation is when people consider a process-based approach. Innovative products and services are outward facing (customer) and can directly impact demand. Innovative processes are inward facing (employees) and can directly impact the ability to effectively and efficiently provide products and services for the long term. Innovation isn’t just about making a better product; it is also about employing a better process.


Long-term innovation: If people are thinking about their present state, they are thinking too slowly. The best kind of innovation is the kind that anticipates what’s coming and prepares for it with maximum validation and minimum resources. Sometimes the hardest part of thinking creatively about the future is lifting one’s head out of the present circumstances. The draw of our immediate need (and the energy it requires) can often be the greatest impediment to thoughtful differentiation and prioritized focus.


Internal/external innovation: One of the more important points of focus regarding the process of innovation is for people to think more globally. Many people inadvertently think either in terms of what is happening inside the organization or focus on things happening outside the organization. The problem with this split focus is that a change that improves customer experience may make things significantly more difficult (or more expensive) for those working inside the organization. Or, conversely, something that makes things easier or better for employees may make the customer experience less desirable. As simplistic as it may sound, the most significant and effective innovations are those that improve the experience for everyone. This requires broader kinds of thinking.


Purposeful innovation: The desire for innovation, not to mention the pressure to keep up with the competition, can make it very tempting to innovate simply for the sake of trying something new. It’s understandable that people want to break out of ruts, and sometimes it helps to shake things up a bit. But one of the most important questions we need to regularly ask ourselves in the process of innovating is: Will this help us accomplish our mission and vision in a way that is consistent with our values, or are we just trying stuff? It seems like a simple question, but in the effort to stay cutting edge, people can lose sight of the core issue: What business are we in, and will this actually help build the business?


When innovation doesn’t come easy

Innovation isn’t always easy. Some environments resist innovation. In certain circles the push for innovation feels like a betrayal of core values. Serving as a senior leader in a church for more than 30 years has given me many experiences when innovation was resisted. But that doesn’t just happen in churches. It happens in education, politics and business, too. In these scenarios, I have found Jim Collins’ statement regarding innovation especially helpful: “Great organizations understand managing the delicate balance of preserving the core and stimulating progress.”

For organizations that resist innovation, the order of his words is significant. Before talking about “stimulating progress,” get really clear and intentional about defining and preserving the core. Then once people believe the things they find most sacred will be protected, they are more ready to talk about what “progress” looks like.




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