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4 Ways CEOs Can Encourage Internal Innovation

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At Infragistics, adopting a culture of innovation starts during the hiring process and includes inspiring passion through an internal innovation lab and encouraging the autonomy to run with ideas.

Imagine if hard drives still weighed 200 pounds and were the size of a refrigerator. Would Adam Osborne have been able to introduce the first laptop weighing 23 pounds in 1981? Without innovation, laptops would not have evolved into the lightweight portable devices they are today.

Innovation is not just a buzzword—it’s the key to staying relevant in an era of disruption  and keeping employees engaged. Innovation is a powerful vehicle for empowering internal entrepreneurs as well as stimulating creative solutions to business challenges.

The world is constantly changing. No matter how many years you’ve been in business, innovation is the key to long-term success. Even if your initial product or service is successful, you’ll need to continue to innovate.

During my three decades as a CEO, I’ve learned that there will always be a new startup trying to encroach on your market white space or disrupt the market. Plus, innovation can solve some of our most pressing problems.

Recent innovations that address the challenges brought on by the Covid-19 crisis were made by Ascension Healthcare, which went from 10 virtual visits per day before the pandemic to 17,000 visits per day. Their internal “Ascension Studio” team developed an app for virtual ER consultation and registration for an in-person visit. When doctors told the team they wanted to track patients after sending them home, internal innovators built a Covid-specific application for remote patient monitoring.

Another example of internal innovation is Amazon Prime. A team of Amazon employees formulated the ‘Prime’ idea because they were falling behind eBay and they believed customers would pay more to be part of an ‘exclusive’ membership that gave them two-day delivery. Prime generates over $19 billion per year on subscriptions and 1 in 3 Americans has a Prime membership.

Innovation is What Leading Companies Have in Common

Companies that are clear leaders within their industries have one common factor—they all embrace innovation.

Not only can internal innovation represent significant cost savings, but it can also successfully originate new concepts and enhance employee engagement. If you create teams that support innovation and welcome creativity, everyone can be involved in generating ideas, improving those ideas and prototyping the best ideas.

When we launched the Infragistics Innovation Lab, it cemented our commitment to our internal inventors and entrepreneurs. For years, we informally developed game-changing enterprise software products in-house. Now, we have a $50 million fund and a formal process for the constant innovation that we need to stay two steps ahead of technology shifts. Companies such as Delta Air Lines, Volkswagen, Marriott, Autodesk, Fidelity Investments, Vodafone, McKinsey, Wells Fargo, New York Times, Ikea, Cisco, Panasonic, Ford and Verizon also have innovation labs and initiatives to prepare for what is coming next in global business disruption and transformation.

According to the IBM Institute for Business Value Innovation in Ecosystem survey, 46% of executives said their organizations derive more than 10% of revenue from innovation activities.

Here are four ways you can encourage internal innovation:

1. Adopt a culture of innovation. Give all employees the opportunity to realize their vision.

Adopting a culture of innovation starts during the hiring process at Infragistics. We look to hire people who are entrepreneurial, curious and love to learn. Questions that may be asked in the hiring process include:

“In the tech world, what have you learned recently that is outside of the scope of the work that you do now?”

This gives us insight into a candidate’s level of curiosity and drive to continue to learn new things.

“What is the latest book that you’ve read?”

While some candidates will answer that they don’t read books as much as they listen to podcasts or Ted Talks, or subscribe to online user groups, etc., their answer shows that they are staying informed about the newest trends in the world. Our goal is to empower our employees to innovate and reach their professional goals. If people are curious and are lifelong learners, they will find limitless potential for professional growth.

2. Inspire passion. Encourage employees to contribute a regular stream of insights that help the company shape ongoing innovation. Our Innovation Lab provides freedom for internal inventors to experiment with innovations beyond the company’s core UI/UX product, without the need to generate immediate revenue. Anyone in the company might come up with an idea — maybe they talked with a customer or studied our analytics data. Maybe they’ve seen a sci-fi movie that sparked a thought. The innovator then articulates the vision. We call that a picture of the future. It may be a written narrative, it may be an actual picture, anything that conveys the idea in an easy to understand format. One product that came out of our Innovation lab is our business intelligence tool, Reveal, an embedded analytics and dashboard engine that is commercially available today.

3. Create a place where people love to work. Allow your people to experiment, discover and deploy ideas that shift markets. We put a lot of thought into the building of our company headquarters and making it a place where people wanted to work. We established an office environment that was as much like ‘home’ as you could achieve, incorporating an outdoor open space where people could enjoy picnics, café for mingling, pool table for fun, and a library and creative spaces for brainstorming. However, the COVID crisis has changed the ways Infragistics maintains a great work culture. During the pandemic, we planned fun online activities, including a virtual holiday party where everyone received a license to the Preciate platform for socializing with their teams, friends and family throughout the year. Another creative initiative was a thoughtful “work from home” kit mailed to all employees, which included a custom mask, hacky sack ball to lower stress and keep employees active, a game night party pack, cozy socks, and coasters to protect furniture. In addition to the care package, a new Infragistics peer recognition program uses video and company Intranet to re-enforce a positive company culture. Called the “IGGI” Awards (think Emmy, Oscar, ESPY), this monthly peer recognition program allows employees to nominate co-workers for embodying the corporate values of teamwork and collaboration, innovation, quality and creativity, delighting the customer, investing in its people and investing in each other.

4. Offer team members the autonomy to build and execute new ideas. We host an annual week-long hackathon at Infragistics, which gives our employees a forum to push the envelope and innovate. Hackathon themes have included “AI @ Infragistics,” “Productivity Improvements” and “Internet of Things”. These produced fun and productive internal innovations such as an AI assistant which reduced test runs by 50%, build fail and pass notifications, and scheduling updates based on sensors in meeting rooms. This year’s theme is “Connect–Create–Automate,” with a focus on extensibility within our Slingshot and Indigo.Design products, creating apps and UI kits for Indigo.Design, and ideas for implementing automation to improve processes. People can hack on their own or team up with anyone from any area of the company to set their ideas in motion. This is an inventive way to keep employees engaged and enable them to experiment, learn and make discoveries.

Making the Commitment to Invention and Innovation

One of the best ways to keep your business relevant and your employees inspired is through internal innovation.

If you’re committed to invention and innovation, your employees will be, too. Innovation starts with an idea. Leading a company is not just about managing your people, selling products and day-to-day operations. One of the best parts of entrepreneurship is the ability to be creative and come up with new ideas. Those who are not bound by restrictions can innovate from within. Entrepreneurs have the ability to dream, invent and encourage others to contribute to innovation in very tangible ways.

It’s this internal innovation that will keep your business relevant and your employees invested in the company. Whether your company is small, medium or large, there is always room for realizing your vision through internal innovation.


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