The Art of Incremental Improvements: Innovate From Within Your Culture

This article was originally published in Forbes

The phrase “innovative culture” is often used in business to position a company on the cutting edge of new technology, processes or ideas. Many of the world’s most successful, well-known brands are also known as the top innovators in their space.

Most organizations want to follow that lead and build a culture that breeds innovation, but many business leaders face the issue of there being no singular “correct” path that exists to create an innovative culture. Leaders tend to overcomplicate the process, muddying the water by bringing in speakers or scheduling extra training. While these aren’t necessarily wrong approaches, there are more important factors to consider when working toward an innovative culture.

What Is Innovation?

Innovation is an organization’s internal creativity that allows ideas to be shared and changes made to increase performance, gain profit or improve efficiency—which looks different in every organization. Some large corporations have brought back research and development (R&D) departments, and smaller companies may have small teams dedicated to implementing changes.

Building An Innovative Culture

Many leaders feel that building a culture of innovation rests entirely on their shoulders, which is true in some ways but doesn’t have to be as high-pressure as it sounds. To build the most effective culture of innovation, leaders must realize that they shouldn’t bring it from outside the organization; innovation comes from within the organization. That is to say, it comes from the people doing the work and using the tools of the business every day.

When cultivating an atmosphere leading to beneficial changes, the onus lies on leadership to foster ideas of individuality and make it evident that they care about their employees’ thoughts. Every employee has ideas about how the business should run—processes with unnecessary steps, tools that could be better or strategies that could be used as alternatives.

Instead of creating an entirely new thing, an organically innovative business culture pulls from what is already there.

Organizational Changes Vs. Incremental Improvements

It’s easy to think of innovation as company-wide changes that fundamentally change how employees do their daily work. With today’s artificial intelligence taking center stage in many conversations about the future, business leaders are looking to implement changes quickly to stay caught up to competitors.

Massive changes are sometimes necessary, but focusing too much on that area can lead to missed opportunities for small implementations that can significantly impact the business. When examining potential changes, leaders should consider the ROI of time spent implementing.

For example, say an employee comes to their leadership or technology team with an idea for a small user interface change to one of the tools they use daily. The employee says the change could remove unnecessary steps in a process and save them 15 minutes per day. The IT team predicts it will take two employees one day to design, test and implement the relatively simple change on the back end.

At first glance, two employees spending an entire day making such a small change may look like a lopsided investment of time. However, over one week, that employee could save over an hour of productivity time, and if a whole team or department uses the improved tool, that saved time adds up quickly.

For this employee, 15 minutes daily is 65 hours a year in time saved, and for a team of 12, that adds up to over three months of eight-hour workdays’ worth of savings. That one day of work for two employees to make the change looks extremely efficient when examining the investment of time over the long term.

On the other hand, if a business is considering designing an entirely new tool for employees to use in their daily work, this is a much larger time commitment. A project of that scale involves brainstorming, designing and testing, and it can take months or even years to complete.

Additionally, during the process of implementing large initiatives, end-user input is necessary throughout the process. Without this input, the change could contain small inefficiencies that offset the intended benefits in the first place. All of the internal communication, planning and back-and-forth between users and designers makes a large-scale change a significant investment of time and resources.

Sometimes, a change like this is necessary to keep up with competitors or to fix a fundamental flaw in processes. However, it pays to think critically about the significant time investment against the benefit the company will see. Is it worth the time?

Don’t Lose Sight of Desk-View Changes

The reality of the situation in most innovative organizations is that leaders have to manage organization-wide changes and incremental improvements simultaneously. When working on a large project, it’s essential to focus on the small changes.

Leaders and managers should be clear that they’re willing to listen to any idea from employees of any level. No suggestion is too big or too small to be heard. These ideas can become efficiency breakthroughs or be impossible to implement, but the crucial detail is that they are listened to.

As employees get used to sharing ideas and seeing leaders take their thoughts seriously, buy-in on the individual level will increase, and innovation will start occurring naturally. Sometimes, minor ideas can result in a significant change in company processes, and managers might never hear those ideas if employees aren’t comfortable sharing their struggles.

Don’t Build A New Culture; Innovate Around The Current Culture

The bottom line is this: Every company is staffed by employees who have ideas about how the business runs. These ideas, from the minds of the people making the gears turn every day, are a company’s best bet for innovative change that will genuinely help its business.

Business leaders must make employees feel comfortable with speaking candidly about how things operate to gain access to these ideas. The current status quo is not the only way operations can run successfully; there are likely many ways leaders can improve the status quo. Always look for improvements, and make it known that ideas are encouraged—whether big or small.

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