Prashanth Nanjundappa is currently the Head of Products and Chef Business at Progress. He has spent his entire career of over 20 years in the tech world, managing cross-functional high-performance teams, focused on building and launching enterprise and consumer products globally. In the first 12 years of his career, Prashanth worked as a developer, technical lead and architect for mobile, video-broadcast and OTT, SaaS and PaaS products. Prior to joining Progress, he led the product management teams for high-tech B2B and enterprise products at companies like Cisco and Knowlarity. He has spent time working in Italy, France and South Korea. Prashanth has an engineering degree in Electronics & Communication from Bangalore University and an MBA from the Indian School of Business (ISB) Hyderabad.
Till a decade ago, Blackberry controlled over 50 per cent of the US and 20 per cent of the global smartphone market. It was the phone we aspired for, the one to be had. But the market changed, and it was Apple’s turn to dominate. Blackberry’s failure to anticipate changing consumer needs & competitive landscape to leverage advanced screen-based technology proved to be its downfall.
When we think of innovation, we think of our Olas and Swiggys, the ones with disruptive ideas that were game-changers. But even thriving businesses need to think about what comes next and prepare. Mature organisations with a good customer base and sizable revenue constantly face the risk of elimination by competitors. They face the threats of shifting consumer preferences and disruptive innovations. The emergence of new technologies has increased the pressure on businesses to innovate, adapt or perish.
According to McKinsey, around 84 per cent of executive leaders identify innovation as a crucial factor in their growth strategies. About 80 per cent consider their current business models to be at risk compared to their competitors. They still have difficulties when it comes to execution. While for many innovation means coming up with unseen ideas, it actually is a long and purposeful process happening in a culture where experimentation and failure are encouraged. How do you go about cultivating culture of innovation? Let’s take a look.
Align the culture to the organisational values
Having an alignment across the organisation is the first step to creating an environment where new ideas thrive. All employees across all teams should be aware of the internal initiatives and processes supporting innovation and know exactly how they can contribute. These initiatives might include internal hackathons, intrapreneurship programs, incubation projects and practices like Google’s 20-per cent time and 3M’s 15 per cent culture.
Starting to work on a new idea about a product or a service might require resources such as new equipment, software or participating in training programmes. To fully support their employees, companies need to allocate budget for these needs and for the entire journey, especially for when the final product is ready to go to market.
Follow an experiment-oriented approach
In addition to time and budget, teams working on innovation projects need a structured framework to follow. This framework should include objectives and key results and a timeline with clearly defined steps and targets that need to be accomplished. When teams see that the experiment is not going as planned, they need to stop, rethink and, if necessary, reinvest into other experiments. The final step should be documenting and sharing the findings.
Table 1 is an example of the framework that we have used to structure an experiment on building business proposals. It was time bound, with three months for each stage. We set goals, assessed results, and took a go/no go decision at each stage.
Develop mentoring projects
Everyone has ideas, and often they need help to realise them. A mentoring or just training programme, pairing employees with selected mentors or more experienced colleagues, can help them bridge any skill and process gaps and receive guidance, when needed.
I once had a project where my team and I had to work with new technologies. We could either go through an intensive and time-consuming training session or get the help of one of the architects in a different team who had experience with this technology. Our senior management supported us and reallocated his time for the next couple of months to help us. And this helped us see the project through and made it a success.
Allocating undisturbed time and budgets for a mentoring or training programme can accelerate company’s innovation efforts.
Have an appetite for failure
I believe that it is only a failure if you have learnt nothing from the experience. As teams work together and experiment, there are bound to be some hits and misses. To minimize the losses, teams should experiment with small pilot projects first, fail fast and move on. Encouraging experimentation, learning through failure, and sharing the findings for future innovation should be at the core of creating a culture of innovation.
To illustrate that, around a decade or so ago, our team was working on a prototype for using mobile as a remote for a TV’s set-top box in India. While the idea was great, we built it assuming that Wi-Fi, the underlying technology, was widely available. However, at the time, we lacked the necessary infrastructure and logistics here in India. So, we repurposed and pitched the product to European and American markets with better Wi-Fi penetration. The lesson here was that the idea was still great and all we had to do was change the target market.
Transparency in innovation means not only all employees being aware of the initiatives and processes, but also announcing learnings from failures. Seeing what doesn’t work eliminates your options and gets you nearer to what would work. That’s valuable knowledge that often remains hidden.
Create a rewards and recognition programme
Incentivising the innovation process can keep employees engaged, showing that their efforts – even when they don’t lead to profitable results – are valued. Identify key milestones in the framework and celebrate the small and big successes. Introduce shoutouts during Town Halls or every quarter to make sure success is shared. And while it may sound counterproductive, we should also reward failure as it encourages teams to experiment and take risks.
To harness the benefits of experimentation and failure, companies need to delink innovation from the performance management cycle. For example, if an employee receives a 20 per cent hike for meeting their regular work key results and a 3 per cent hike for innovation, they will prioritise the former. To nurture innovation, decouple that from your performance cycle.
Build a workforce for the future
Organisational culture has a significant impact on efficiency. A McKinsey report that looked at more than 1,000 organisations and three million individuals found out that those organisations with cultures in the top quartile perform 200 per cent better than those in the bottom quartile. The same McKinsey report also found that in businesses that are unable to transform, 70 per cent of those failures were due to culture-related issues.
Talent is hard to find and even harder to retain. Employees want to work for companies that leave space for innovation. Thus, encouraging innovation helps companies not only achieve business success but also turn into happy workplaces where people feel engaged, free to fulfil their potential and appreciated.