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Encouraging employees to embrace innovation is more important than ever

Achieving higher levels of output from the same or fewer resources has been the motivating force driving invention and innovation throughout history. But in today's troubled economic climate, effective innovation is even more of an imperative.

Just as leaders ought to set standards for ethical behaviour, they are also responsible for enhancing the willingness of people in organisations to embrace innovation. What is often overlooked is this does not only refer to the acceptance and innovation of novel concepts such as new products, processes, organisational structures or communication strategies, it also refers to the quality of these concepts. 

The trouble is while thinking differently and identifying new opportunities are never more important than during tough times, the need for short-term fire-fighting means that the likelihood of this happening in practice may never be lower.

There may not be an obvious solution to this conundrum, but there are some straightforward possibilities that might be considered by any organisation, be it small, medium or large, private or public.

Back in the early 20th century, Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter articulated the crucial distinction between incremental and discontinuous innovation. The first builds on gradual improvements to established methods of operation. The second leads to radical change. The first improves, the second transforms. 

Incremental innovation is the sort of thing that maintains or increases market share, often in response to market research and customer feedback. Radical innovation involves considering key aspects of a business from non-obvious, different, even perverse perspectives to reveal opportunities that were previously unrecognised. 

Crucially, these innovations are not just restricted to products, services and processes, but can also transform organisational behaviour, structure and culture - all areas that fall within the domain of HR.

While it may be important for organisations to refresh their offerings in order to remain competitive within existing markets and technologies, it is also important that they undertake a more wide-ranging and freethinking review of all the other aspects of their operations to ensure that opportunities previously unrecognised are not missed. Because if they don't, they can be sure some of their competitors will.

The most important thing to remember about innovation is that is far more than having a ‘eureka' moment. Innovation is a process that starts with the identification of a problem or opportunity and extends all the way through to the new innovation being implemented.

So the belief that there should be no restrictions or barriers around innovation is a mistaken one. For innovation to be effective, it requires both ‘pre-concept' preparations and ‘post-concept' implementation strategies. 

In a perfect world, innovation could be broken down into a simple but rigorous procedure. 

A definition phase that strips the problem down to its root causes and prioritises these so that they can be dealt with one at a time.

A discovery phase that comprehensively explores this root cause and uses divergent thinking and solution storming to suggests some solutions. 

A determine phase that sifts these ideas and comes up with a small number of viable alternatives.  Proven techniques would then be used to ascertain the best possible solution.

The new product, process, or structure that emerges from this pre-concept focus would then be subject to more familiar considerations in terms of development, design and eventual deployment.

In practice, though, pressure to seek a solution as quickly as possible means that we tend to neglect this crucial ‘pre-concept' focus and look instead to the nearest solution emerging from previous experience or something deployed by others. That's why the flow of new ideas and concepts into organisations is so often suboptimal. 

Pre-concept innovation analysis also saves money because it helps to filter out unworkable concepts at an early stage when the sunk cost involved is quite low.  Insufficient focus on problem definition, idea generation and concept selection often allows significant costs to be incurred before fundamental weaknesses that could have been detected much earlier are fully recognised. 

Another problem organisations face is that rapid decision-making under pressure without allowing recourse to advice or reflection is sometimes mistaken for effective leadership. It's not. It simply means there is virtually no pre-concept focus and the existing reservoir of experience and ability present in the rest of the organisation is ignored.

And that's tragic, because the key thing about creativity and the generation of innovative ideas is that they are not the jurisdiction of a select few; they are open to everyone. We often tend to be self-limiting in the extent to which we share ideas for fear of humiliation, criticism or simply due to a lack of trust in how these may be used or recognised. But open innovation and the sharing of ideas requires structure and trust and may best be established through collaborative pre-concept working across the organisation. Approaches and systems that are created by those expected to apply them may be less susceptible to rejection and therefore more long lasting. 

So even though the prevailing trading conditions in many markets are difficult and now may not seem to be the best time to encourage people to stop, think and reflect, this could actually be exactly what's needed to kick-start your innovation efforts. The outcomes may be impossible to predict, but their impact could be enormous. 

Martin Binks is professor of entrepreneurial development and director of the Institute for Enterprise and Innovation at University of Nottingham Institute for Enterprise and Innovation (UNIEI)