Ramp up innovation in your team: Forget the gimmicks.

By Rosemarie Szostak, Ph.D., Nerac Analyst

Originally Published January 20, 2016

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As an Innovation Leader, Have You Ever Done the Following?

  1. Relaxed dress code to make employees feel more comfortable and hence more creative.
  2. Gotten rid of cubicles. Open spaces can open up their minds, right?
  3. Provided a designer coffee bar. This encourages collaboration you know.
  4. Given everyone on your team a new and futuristic title to inspire them.
  5. Spent your time using terms in conversation like open innovation, crowd-sourcing, disruptive technologies, outside-the-box, comfort zone, inclusive, customer-centric, community-based, facilitate, wave of the future, quantum leap, secret-sauce, safe space.

Lipstick on a pig. Dump the gimmicks.

How Do You Get a Team to Innovate?

First you have to recognize that not everyone is capable of innovation all the time. But that is not a bad thing. Members of your team may be operationally focused and may take that crazy idea and make it practical. You have grunts on the team more than happy to do that critical piece of innovation—the actual implementation work. And you have a handful that have wacky ideas that are just that, wacky. I know they may be flattered that their ideas are considered. It’s inclusive you know. Facilitates discussion. Wave of the future. Seriously, not all ideas, in fact few, are innovative. A team leader and the team need to understand that and not waste time on the exceptionally stupid ideas.

The first key piece of the puzzle is in that spark, that initial idea someone throws on the table that will ultimately help the company that is paying your teams’ salaries. Here are some ideas:

Fresh Eyes on Old Problems

  1. Your team is composed of some newly minted college or professional degrees, some transferees from other R&D units, and probably a few old fogies who have been puttering there forever. Chances are slim to none, that any team member has ever worked as a farm hand, run a saw mill or, for that matter, operated a piece of their company’s factory equipment.What does your team really know about the day-to-day activities of the company? Many times R&D doesn’t understand the operations of a manufacturing or even service business. Get those kids (even the oldsters) out onto the factory floor. Have them talk to the shift supervisors, the maintenance department leaders, the fruit pickers, the packers, the environmental and waste-management team. Have them observe all aspects of the process of taking a raw material to a final product.Ideas come when fresh eyes look at old problems. The operational word here is look, as in see with their own eyes, not what shows up in a powerpoint presentation. Fresh eyes see problems that were not considered problems but ‘just the way we do things around here’. Your team needs hard hats and steel toed shoes and by the end of a year, those things should look well used.You can’t have fresh eyes with fresh ideas if those eyes don’t see anything beyond the sterile walls of the R&D spacepod or Corporate HQ mothership.
  2. Expose your team to the customers. The back end of the grocery stores that stock the product(s) your company makes, places that use and handle the plastic bottles, recycle facilities that deal with the post-consumer packaging. The hospital, nursing home, hotel, restaurant staff who use those tools your company makes. Why have they modified your device with duct tape? Something must not be working right.

Old Eyes on Fresh Technology

Once your team understands the employers business, they can start branching out to explore new areas.

  1. Don’t send a chemist to a chemistry conference; send them to a textile technology conference or an optoelectronics meeting. Send your mechanical engineer to a hospital supply conference or your food scientist to a toy meeting. Is there anything that sparks a new idea after your team’s environmental scientist returns from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas? Mix it up a little bit. Enable the team to expand their knowledge base. Let them see the innovations in other fields, it could spark an idea that would be revolutionary in your industry.

When the team returns to the mothership, emerging technologies, materials and ideas can be captured in team discussions. That, of course, should not be the end of the idea capture. The successful innovation team will research and track relevant technologies. Where are they going? What are experts saying about them? What is the buzz in the industry? What about patent coverage?

As a research and advisory firm, Nerac helps innovation teams identify and track emerging technologies. We help get the ‘skinny’ on new ideas. Mine the patent literature for technology gems that will help the team move from the first step of scratching their heads about innovation to the next steps of understanding a new technology area and its potential for their business. New ideas could come from an adjacent technology field or a market segment. Nerac helps clients explore potentially relevant patent/market activity, and expand the application of their core technology to new areas.

Innovation is not a cool slogan on a casual Friday tee-shirt. It is a serious endeavor undertaken by companies who wish to stay ahead of the pack. Groom the team, don’t pander to it.

About the Analyst

Rosemarie Szostak, Ph.D.

Rosemarie Szostak, Ph.D., advises companies on technology, patents, innovation and disruptive technology. She has 20 plus years of experience as a thought leader and analyst with broad technical knowledge in chemistry, materials and chemical engineering.

Academic Credentials

  • Post Doctoral Fellow, Chemical Engineering Department, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
  • Ph.D., Chemistry, University of California Los Angeles
  • M.S., Chemistry/Physics, Georgetown University

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