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Three lies about innovation

What moves could kill your organization's ability to compete with originality and forward-thinking


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Innovation is the hottest new business buzzword, you can hardly go a day without hearing it. But what does it mean?

The dictionary explains innovation as something new or introduced. My team defines innovation as “something you do different,” and I’ve always seen innovation as a way to make something better, allowing someone to do more good in the community. In the context of our work, it means allowing employees to do more good in their work by innovating services you receive.

At Denver Peak Academy, we follow a simple and steady mantra: innovate, elevate, repeat. We work with employees across the community as well as city representatives across the nation and globe to undergo training that introduces workplace innovation. What they learn translates to fast and tangible benefits - millions in taxpayer dollars saved, faster services for city residents, more effective city programs, the list goes on.

We’ve found that while innovation can be tough, it is also addictive because of the endless positives that emerge from diving in and changing a workplace for the better. We see tons of ear-splitting grins as people go through our training and best of all, are excited. Morale, confidence and work ownership skyrocket; the doldrum day-to-day becomes a well-oiled machine, and people want to keep the innovation train going. The best part is that these lessons can apply to everyone.

Now that you’re pumped up to start transforming, we should acknowledge what will kill your movement.

1. Executives lead innovation

When everyone wants to be the director of innovation, that means no one is innovating. As the director of the Peak Academy, I can attest: top-down innovation doesn’t work. I know what you are thinking: executives can drive innovation in the organization. The simple answer is no they don’t, that is not what I’ve seen in the past decade of guiding business innovation. Most of my experience contradicts the very notion that top down innovations do anything, let alone that these innovations could be successfully implemented.

Years ago, I worked with an executive who was driving change from his office. He actually had written on his hidden white board the goals for changing the organization. I asked if he shared this information with his team and he immediately responded with: “No, they don’t think in systems, they are just doing a job.” Every month he would announce a new change to his organization without any feedback or understanding of what the team really needed.

In order for innovation to thrive, you have to invite your teams, regardless of level, to prepare and embrace change. Your job as an executive is to help set the direction and guide the team to the right outcomes without telling them how to do it. The biggest success come from all levels of the organization working together to solve a single problem.

2. “Just because it’s a good idea doesn’t mean anyone will do it.”

Juan Garza, a former parking cashier and now licensing technician for the City and County of Denver, said that to me a few years ago. He learned the hard way that a good idea is only one piece of the puzzle. Implementation is the largest piece. His team came up with ideas of how to improve the way the city gave out parking permits only to be blocked, pun intended, by other departments.

He learned that he needed to accomplish two goals for an development to be effective ‑ figure out a way to make it easier for the customer and easier for the team that oversaw the work. If you can make something easier for the people doing the work, they will jump at the chance to help. The moment innovation becomes more work and the implementation will be incredibly tough, is the moment you will need to find a person who can give a fiery speech to keep the momentum. But, if the change is small and makes it easier to perform the job, watch how fast you can turn around a parking permit.

Evaluate your ideas and think about how they will be received by the intended audiences. Remember, we want to create momentum, not push a boulder uphill. Small changes can make a big difference, so start there and grow your program as your team experiences the taste of success.

3. Throwing money at a problem will solve it

Most executives I work with want a simple solution - throw money at a problem under the assumption that it will go away. Don’t get me wrong, money can help, but if you have never looked closely at the problem and diagnosed the heart of the issue, you will lose a lot of money, resources and people, and the problem will persist. 

Years ago, we were working with a team at the DMV to reduce the time it takes to get a license plate renewed. It would have been easy to throw more money at this issue, but at the time we were in the throes of the recession and the city was struggling to find resources. After working on process issues, the team and the Denver DMV developed a new renewal mailing. That mailing costs the city a little more to produce every year, but has a dramatic effect on processing and saves a lot more money through workforce efficiency. Now, the average wait time in the Denver DMV is below 20 minutes. All thanks to a change to the mailing and understanding that throwing money at this problem isn’t going to solve it until we uncover all the parts where we can make a difference.    

The old adage, “haste makes waste,” still rings true. Do the hard work now and you will save resources and have a much happier team in the long run.

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