Recently, I wrote about innovation and changing the way we acknowledge, nurture and incorporate it into our organizational culture. There are many areas where our industry desperately needs transformation and innovation. Our very survival depends on new ideas.
We at SMA are witnessing remarkable progress -- innovation is on a bullet train! -- but we have some observations about the opportunities and the obstacles for new ideas. There are high hopes for a boatload of great ideas -- creative product offerings, process improvements, better ways to engage the customer, more effective service modes, new approaches to capitalize on maturing and emerging technologies, etc. But the reality is that in many organizations, the innovation path is lined with obstacles that leave potentially success-producing concepts off the table and out of the picture. In many cases, these roadblocks are not intentional -- in fact, they are not even apparent to the very leaders who are working hard to stimulate innovation.
Some insurers are open to any and all new ideas -- every single one! Any and all innovation ideas are nurtured. In contrast, other insurers have targeted their innovation efforts by assigning teams to look at specific process areas or business lines. A project approach makes it easier to manage and measure but can limit the scope of the vision. Other insurers designate the responsibility for innovation to a department head, frequently IT or a line of business. With this approach, responsibility is assigned, typically with accompanying funding, but it too can be limiting because of unintended gatekeepers and biased priorities.
Innovation requires a nurturing environment, one that encourages people to submit ideas with the confidence that this is a place to explore and experiment - to assess the state of readiness, address potential obstacles, find probable pitfalls and measure the potential for success with the assurance that failure is acceptable. Once an idea is explored, there needs to be a place for it to mature and flourish or a graceful way to table it until timing is right, and in some cases a gentle way to kill it. The ideal is an environment with no gating criteria, no judgment, no politics.
Embracing true transformation and innovation requires a thorough and straightforward examination of the current role innovation is allowed to play within your organization. To discover the roadblocks, begin by asking these five questions:
- Is there a genuine acceptance that valuable ideas can come from any level within our organization?
- Are employees empowered to offer suggestions without the fear of embarrassment or possible reprimand?
- Is there authentic encouragement for an exchange of opinions?
- Does a pathway for fresh ideas exist?
- Have we demonstrated administrative as well as executive support for innovation in general?