istock_bubblegumwaitressNo business can continuously and consistently deliver exciting new innovations without the drive, commitment and creativity of its people. As businesses grow, however, the entrepreneurialism that characterised its initial success can be ground down by the implementation of the more formal and structured processes that are demanded by larger organisations.

There are seven ways in which you can maintain and improve the level of engagement and empowerment (your people’s willingness and ability to make their own decisions about the best way to achieve results) in line with the principles of fast-lane innovation.

  1. Build and raise capabilities. You must invest in the skills and capabilities required for effective innovation. These include creative thinking approaches, prototype development, team leadership and project management, as well as the technical and engineering skills. Not only should you invest in the development your existing teams, but you should also ensure that your new hires include a bias towards those with an innovation focus and flair.
  2. Involve with integrity. It is vital that people are given clear objectives and the broader context of the company’s aims and ambitions. Only then can they really understand what is required to succeed. It is not enough to do this with centralised communications, but requires that each manager and leader across the business takes the time to genuinely listen to their team members’ ideas and helps them to develop new products, services and improvements that are in line with the company’s priorities.
  3. Provide boundaries. Empowerment does not happen in an organisation without boundaries. On the contrary, a lack of boundaries can lead to paralysis where no one is sure about what is expected of them. Let people know what their limits are. These might include the types of products, services and improvements upon which you wish to focus, investment and funding ceilings and decision rights.
  4. Encourage small, organic project teams. Many innovations are created by small teams (two or three people) working together on small ideas, rather than by individuals working independently or as part of larger collaborations. What can you do to encourage these ‘skunk works’ in your business? Some companies, including Google and 3M let their people spend a proportion of their working week on projects that are of interest to a small group, rather than as part of a wider corporate initiative.
  5. Drive accountability. Within these boundaries and objectives, give people full accountability for results. By giving them this freedom and responsibility, you will ensure that decisions are made as close as possible to the customer, rather than being driven back up the chain. It is vital that you don’t always step in to prevent ‘failure’. Such evenst are a critical part of your people’s development and a necessary element of a way of working that will drive superior performance.
  6. Reward behaviours, not just results. I have written elsewhere that failure is an intrinsic element of fast-lane innovation. Ensure that you support this reality by rewarding those that behave in ways that are likely to lead to innovation, even if not everything they have tried and developed has succeeded.
  7. Keep raising performance standards. If performance standards are simply maintained, it is likely that your relative competitive position will decline. Continue to raise the bar, increase targets and demand improvements in standards of performance, including the time to market, the cost per initiative, and the number of ideas being generated, tested and reviewed.

© Stuart Cross 2010. All rights reserved