In an environment where innovation is the driving force, you need a space that allows for inspiration, ideation, and implementation.
We are quickly entering a new era. And it comes with new problems. A small glimpse can be seen in the shift 3-D printing is producing in the AEC world. For architects, it is allowing clients to better visualize your design, reduce the hours spent creating models, and it begins creating a library of reusable designs. In engineering, it is allowing for the production of significantly more complex structures than traditional manufacturing methods allow. China is even producing entire houses with giant 3-D printers. It allows designers to experiment with geometries that may not have been an economically viable option in the past. The advancement of material science seems to be the limit for the moment and is one of the most important areas for innovation in 3-D printing.
The New York Times bestselling author Yuval Noah Harari has an interesting take in his new book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow: “While the industrial revolution created the working class, the next big revolution will create the useless class.” Others such as Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have warned about what the rise of AI will mean. This has led to a cornucopia of articles on how to handle the job loss and humanity’s “merging with machines.”
The world was stagnant for a long time and now the rapid rate of technological advancement can seem to catch a lot of us off guard. But there are a few foundational principles that can help you design a culture within your firm that will ensure you are successful as the world evolves. Two tools you have are sustainable differentiation through innovation, and radical truth.
Innovation is not creativity, and the good news is, it can be learned. As an engineer, I like to have a measurable goal and innovation is measureable. It is about introducing change into relatively stable systems to identify a problem or need and apply your creative resources to design a solution that returns value to the firm. There is generally not a lack of ideas, but rather a lack of action or implementation within the firm to put those ideas to work. You cannot simply tell your employees to be innovative – it starts at the top with the right structure and incentives. To effectively breathe life into this type of culture, you need to lead by example. The creative work you expect of your employees you need to do yourself. You are not just facilitating the innovation process, but being a practitioner.
Innovation is a lot easier in theory than in practice. Each of the skills and management methodologies that I present here will require time and practice. Let’s start with the skills you should be cultivating that are associated with innovative individuals.
- Association. This is the ability to connect questions, problems, or ideas which are seemingly unrelated from different fields. This is not an article on recruiting or HR policy, but for this reason, it is important to be conscious of building a diverse team full of varying experiences and knowledge. Your millennial employee’s “side hustle” may provide more value to your firm than you think.
- Questioning. We all know the power of asking the right questions. It allows your mind to arrive at new solutions. Develop the skill of challenging the status quo. Ask why, why not, set constraints, imagine possibilities, imagine yourself in a world of opposites. Do not be afraid to question the unquestionable.
- Observing. What is it that your client is not telling you? Make observations and scrutinize in agonizing detail what your employees, clients, and the market are doing. We could not have envisioned needing a smart phone before they arrived, but they are almost indispensable now. People are not always great at knowing exactly what they want or need.
- Experimenting. The idea here is to actively experiment through thoughtful exploration, physical tinkering, or working in a new environment. The more decentralized you can make your processes, the easier this is to implement. Whether it is a success or failure, sometimes a small pilot program that takes action can bring a lot of value.
- Networking. This final skill may seem obvious, but it is not as obvious as it seems. I am sure that most of you network to sell yourself, your firm, or gain access to resources, but what is important here is networking to meet people with different ideas, knowledge, and perspectives.
It is also important to incentivize risk taking and allow for failure. Too often, there is a fear of failure, but failure is essential for true innovation. You must realign metrics and incentives and provide the tools necessary to empower your organization to take the risks necessary to innovate for the future. In addition to what we have mentioned already, you must listen, stay open to new ideas (they may not come from the experts), and collaborate within and outside of your organization. Sometimes complementary firms, universities, government agencies, or consulting firms can bring new perspectives and ideas into your innovation process.
The last suggestion, which is not possible for every organization, is to flatten your management structure to allow for a decentralized decision making process. It provides more direct communication and eliminates the long approval process that impedes innovation. Empower your employees to make decisions at the lowest level possible. Strive to be as entrepreneurial as possible no matter the size of your firm.
To tie it all together, make sure your organization is radically honest with itself. This rigorous self-assessment should include the firm’s management style, providing constant constructive feedback. It’s a funny thing, people do not seem to know how to react to someone who plays with all their cards on the table. You need to be able to make decisions quickly and honestly with yourself on whether things are working or not. It will allow you to move on, move faster, and have more success than if you cannot simply be honest with how you are performing at all levels of the firm.
Many like to claim they are innovative, but few firms excel at creating a culture that truly generates, develops, and implements great new concepts. Like I said, there is rarely a lack of ideas or idea collection methods, but a lack of action. And then you wonder why you fail to meet your innovation goals. Start evaluating yourself by using a few of these ideas and reach out to us if you have any questions.
Phil Keil is a consultant with Zweig Group’s M&A services. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.