What steps should en­trepreneurs and gov­ern­ment take to be­come more in­no­va­tive?

Mar­ija Elena Borg, win­ner of the 2018 Youth Es­say Com­pe­ti­tion

The Malta Business Weekly - - LEADER / OPINION -

Ac­cord­ing to David O’Sul­li­van and Lawrence Doo­ley, “in­no­va­tion is the process of mak­ing changes to some­thing es­tab­lished by in­tro­duc­ing some­thing new”. Such changes can be rad­i­cal – im­ply­ing dras­tic or far-reach­ing mod­i­fi­ca­tions – or else grad­ual – of­ten re­ly­ing on con­sis­tent, in­cre­men­tal progress. Ei­ther way, in­no­va­tion im­pacts the growth of or­gan­i­sa­tions, not solely in terms of their turnover and profit lev­els, but also in terms of their de­gree of ex­per­tise, ef­fi­ciency and qual­ity.

Since in­no­va­tion is ap­pli­ca­ble to any work area of any given or­gan­i­sa­tion, in­di­vid­u­als and en­ti­ties op­er­at­ing in both the pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tor stand to ben­e­fit. This is the rea­son why the fol­low­ing steps may be con­sid­ered ap­pli­ca­ble to both en­trepreneurs or pri­vate busi­ness own­ers, as well as to gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and pol­i­cy­mak­ers.

Step 1: Al­lo­cate time for cre­ativ­ity and in­no­va­tion

In to­day’s fast-paced so­ci­ety, peo­ple across the globe spend most of their days work­ing hard and long hours to keep up with life’s de­mands and achieve suc­cess in their ca­reers. Nat­u­rally, this cre­ates over­whelm­ing sce­nar­ios that ren­der peo­ple sus­cep­ti­ble to high lev­els of stress. In this re­gard, a 2016 Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence Study con­ducted by Shira Baror and Moshe Bar has proven that men­tal over­loads neg­a­tively im­pact the process of cre­ative think­ing. Em­ploy­ees who are con­tin­u­ously stretched too thin or al­lo­cated a work­load that is sim­ply too much to bear, are there­fore un­able to serve as a source of in­no­va­tion and in­spi­ra­tion at the work­place.

To mit­i­gate this is­sue, a num­ber of or­gan­i­sa­tions have al­ready been im­ple­ment­ing ini­tia­tives that al­low for their work­ers to ded­i­cate time in their day-to-day sched­ules for cre­ativ­ity and in­no­va­tion. For in­stance, one of the world’s most in­no­va­tive tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies, 3M Cor­po­ra­tion, im­ple­mented a “15% rule” as part of its core in­no­va­tion strat­egy. Such a rule per­mits sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers to “spend up to 15% of their time pur­su­ing projects of their choice” with the in­ten­tion of stum­bling upon un­ex­pected op­por­tu­ni­ties and break­through in­no­va­tions. As em­pha­sised by Wil­liam McKnight, then chair­man of the 3MCor­po­ra­tion’s Board, “if you put fences around peo­ple, you get sheep. Give peo­ple the room they need”.

In his pub­li­ca­tion Imag­ine: How Cre­ativ­ity Works, Jonah Lehrer uses ad­vanced neu­ropsy­chol­ogy to ex­plain why ini­tia­tives like these tend to be suc­cess­ful: “Mo­ments be­fore sub­jects solve a tricky cre­ative prob­lem, a steady stream of al­pha waves em­anates from the right hemi­sphere of the brain − the half more closely as­so­ci­ated with ab­stract think­ing than with tightly fo­cused log­i­cal rea­son­ing.”

Al­pha waves are typ­i­cally gen­er­ated through en­joy­able ac­tiv­i­ties. For some, such ac­tiv­i­ties may sim­ply re­fer to nap­ping or leisure read­ing, while for oth­ers they may range from trekking to surf­ing and ab­seil­ing. Grant­ing em­ploy­ees with suf­fi­cient leisure time there­fore en­ables them to work through prob­lems more ef­fec­tively and come up with new so­lu­tions. Not all or­gan­i­sa­tions will af­ford to abide by the 3M Cor­po­ra­tion’s “15% rule”, how­ever, it is im­por­tant for them to pri­ori­tise in­no­va­tion and seek to at least al­lo­cate em­ploy­ees some time to think and dream big.

Step 2: Sur­round them­selves with cre­ative, in­quis­i­tive and proac­tive peo­ple

In the quest for in­no­va­tion, en­trepreneurs and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials should al­ways strive to en­gage peo­ple with an “en­tre­pre­neur­ial DNA”. As highly in­quis­i­tive in­di­vid­u­als – of­ten also “crit­i­cal of the sta­tus quo” – such peo­ple are con­stantly on the look­out for ideas that could spur in­no­va­tion.

The so-called “cre­ative” are linked to a con­di­tion called “low La­tent In­hi­bi­tion”, which es­sen­tially means that the brain of these in­di­vid­u­als is un­able to sup­press any­thing that it does not con­sider as im­por­tant or rel­e­vant to the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. Due to this “in­abil­ity”, the hu­man brain pro­vides cre­atives with the raw in­gre­di­ents that they re­quire to gen­er­ate their unique and ex­clu­sive ideas.

Be­sides cre­atives, how­ever, in­no­va­tion also re­quires the in­put of highly proac­tive and op­por­tunis­tic peo­ple. Be­ing ac­tion-ori­ented and sen­si­tive to mar­ket trends, such in­di­vid­u­als are cru­cial in driv­ing the sec­ond phase of in­no­va­tion – its im­ple­men­ta­tion.

There­fore, it is im­por­tant not to per­ceive in­no­va­tion as the re­sult of “heroic in­di­vid­ual ef­forts”. Rather, each and ev­ery in­no­va­tion ac­tion is the prod­uct of team­work – which ne­ces­si­tates the set­ting up of ap­pro­pri­ate teams of peo­ple at the place of work. It would be fu­tile to have a team that is only made up of cre­ative in­di­vid­u­als, as these will only ex­cel at the first phase of in­no­va­tion – the gen­er­a­tion of novel ideas. Sim­i­larly, it would be point­less to have a team that solely com­prises of proac­tive in­di­vid­u­als as these would prob­a­bly never pause to re­flect on their ac­tions and see whether they need to re-strate­gise their way for­ward. As a re­sult, it is im­per­a­tive for teams to be struc­tured in a way that in­cor­po­rates peo­ple with dif­fer­ent sets of skills, who can all con­trib­ute to the tal­ent mix and push for in­no­va­tion in the most ef­fi­cient of ways.

Step 3: Adopt ap­pro­pri­ate man­age­ment skills that will al­low for the cre­ation of an in­no­va­tion cul­ture

Be­sides en­sur­ing that tasks and projects are be­ing im­ple­mented by a team of peo­ple with com­ple­men­tary skill sets, it is im­per­a­tive for a busi­ness owner or a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial in a top po­si­tion to learn how to ap­pro­pri­ately man­age em­ploy­ees. Work­ers with an “en­tre­pre­neur­ial DNA” can­not tol­er­ate rou­tines or tasks that can eas­ily be com­pleted on “au­topi­lot”. In­stead, they are mo­ti­vated by chal­leng­ing and tricky projects that can re­sult into great ac­com­plish­ments. Un­less such em­ploy­ees are ap­pro­pri­ately man­aged and given an in­cen­tive to shine, there ex­ists a high prob­a­bil­ity that they will end up de­mo­ti­vated and turn their strengths into weak­nesses.

More­over, work­ers that may not be nat­u­rally in­clined to­wards en­trepreneur­ship, should still feel em­pow­ered to act in an in­no­va­tive way at the place of work. This form of em­pow­er­ment should fun­da­men­tally stem from the cre­ation of an en­vi­ron­ment “where in­di­vid­u­als feel in­cen­tivised to take risks, make their own de­ci­sions and ex­per­i­ment”. In other words, a cul­ture that re­nounces bu­reau­cracy and pro­motes the shar­ing of ideas. To en­able the cre­ation of this cul­ture, lead­ers must have trust in their work­ers and al­low them to feel proud of the suc­cess that they bring upon the com­pany or gov­ern­ment de­part­ment.

Step 4: In­vest in pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships

While there is no widely ac­cepted def­i­ni­tion of a Pub­lic-Pri­vate Part­ner­ship, such a part­ner­ship can be un­der­stood as “a long-term con­tract be­tween a pri­vate party and a gov­ern­ment agency for pro­vid­ing a pub­lic as­set or ser­vice”. In a PPP, part­ners are ex­pected to share risks and may ex­change in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty and re­sources (hu­man, fi­nan­cial) in any pro­por­tion they deem ap­pro­pri­ate.

For in­stance, one type of PPP is a Re­search Part­ner­ship, through which pub­lic and pri­vate en­ti­ties come to­gether to de­velop com­mon tools, meth­ods and plat­forms that sup­port (early stage) in­no­va­tion. It is clear that such a part­ner­ship not only al­lows for an in­crease in in­vest­ment in re­search ac­tiv­i­ties, but also ad­dresses the frag­men­ta­tion of re­search ef­forts be­tween pub­lic and pri­vate en­ti­ties.

PPPs can also play a cru­cial role in con­cept de­vel­op­ment and the draft­ing of sys­tem strate­gies. The far­reach­ing ef­fects of such sys­tems ne­ces­si­tates the in­put of a neu­tral multi-stake­holder en­vi­ron­ment. In this way, bias is min­imised and the use of avail­able ex­per­tise is op­ti­mised.

Con­se­quently, the im­ple­men­ta­tion of PPP ar­range­ments en­ables faster pro­ject com­ple­tion rates, fa­cil­i­tates in­creased re­turn on in­vest­ment and, more im­por­tantly, leads to an in­crease in de­sign and/or op­er­a­tional in­no­va­tion.

Step 5: Ex­pect fail­ures

Ul­ti­mately, it is im­por­tant to un­der­stand that even with a spe­cialised in­no­va­tion pro­gramme, ideas that are in­tended to in­crease in­no­va­tion at an en­ter­prise or gov­ern­men­tal level, may not all turn out to be suc­cess­ful.

If an en­ter­prise or a gov­ern­ment de­part­ment wants to be­come a force for in­no­va­tion, it pri­mar­ily needs to en­sure that the or­gan­i­sa­tion is not solely re­ward­ing suc­cess. As penned by the Ir­ish nov­el­ist and poet, James Joyce, “mis­takes are the por­tals of dis­cov­ery”. It is there­fore through fail­ure that one learns to think out­side the box.

Ob­vi­ously, a dis­tinc­tion needs to be made be­tween “good” and “bad” fail­ures. A “good” fail­ure is one that brings in­sight and ex­pe­ri­ence to the team, whether the re­sult is prof­itable or not. As long as the mis­take is orig­i­nal and able to be res­cued and re-ap­plied in an­other way, it is safe to say that this form of fail­ure is a step to­wards suc­cess. In con­trast, a “bad” fail­ure is one that has al­ready been made a num­ber of times and ends up cost­ing a lot of time, money and re­sources. The key to per­ceiv­ing fail­ure in a more pos­i­tive light lies in pro­mot­ing smart so­lu­tions and learn­ing to dis­tin­guish be­tween “good” and “bad” mis­takes.

Based on the five steps iden­ti­fied above, it is clear that peo­ple are the pri­mary cause for in­no­va­tion within both en­ter­prises and gov­ern­ment de­part­ments. Lead­ers have the po­ten­tial to make a dif­fer­ence by cre­at­ing ap­pro­pri­ate en­vi­ron­ments for in­no­va­tion to thrive and flour­ish. In re­turn, em­ploy­ees are ex­pected to feel more mo­ti­vated to work and pro­pose ideas that could in­crease the rate of prod­uct or process in­no­va­tion at the work­place.

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