Encouraging innovation: Rebuilding your airplane while in flight

Successful companies come in a wide range of sizes and exist in every industry. Common to all is the ability to continuously renew and reinvent their businesses by systematically finding and developing both big and small opportunities, and methodically planning and executing new projects based on the best of those opportunities. This ensures that they can compete effectively over the long term, especially under changing conditions. Like rebuilding an airplane in flight, it requires a culture, processes and techniques that foster good ideas, excellent people, smart designs and efficient execution.

My post last month – “Your business model – could less be more?” – covered ways a focused business can be more profitable and suggested identifying non-performing products, services or markets and then investing in opportunities with better potential. Today’s post speaks to practices that encourage a culture of innovation.

The ability of a business to thrive depends to a large degree on its culture and employees. Successful companies create a culture and establish practices that foster innovation. How does your organization measure up? Include the following in a self-assessment of your organization. Talk to your people to learn whether:

  • Employees are engaged and focused by company’s vision and mission.
  • Employees have timely access to overall goals and understandable performance data.
  • Suggestions, comments and complaints are systematically encouraged, part of a daily routine.
  • Mistakes/missteps are accepted as something to learn from, not punish.

Actively encourage new ideas by telling everyone, including employees, vendors, customers and suppliers, what kinds of suggestions you seek and/or your current roadblocks. Encourage all suggestions, comments, and questions – even complaints; when it comes to innovation, more is always better. Be sure to acknowledge and recognize all ideas and provide timely feedback on whether suggestions will be immediately evaluated or tabled for future consideration. Finally, define, publicize and celebrate success.

Create systems to generate ideas. Tell everyone the company’s direction, then ask and ask again for ideas. Integrate this into everyday life; for example, consider including “new ideas” on the agenda of every weekly meeting; don’t wait until the annual strategic planning meetings to consider ways to improve.

Avoid practices that dampen innovation:

  • Attempt to “value” ideas
  • Punish or make fun of mistakes
  • Ridicule even the “silliest” suggestion
  • Fail to acknowledge and follow through on suggestions

When it comes to bang for the buck, encouraging everyone – employees, vendors, suppliers and customers – to make suggestions is hard to beat. Don’t be surprised when the next great idea comes from a previously untapped source – just because you asked and listened.


Since 1991, Laurie Breitner has assisted organizations with operational improvement, organizational development and strategic planning. Learn more at http://www.lauriebreitner.com.

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