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Now Or Never: How To Break Out Of Your Innovation Box

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Sometimes it takes a crisis to realize that your company's innovation process is not where it should be. One leader shares how she discovered that painful truth, and what she did to fix it.

I consider myself to be an innovator. I face challenges head-on, I think creatively, and I listen to my team’s ideas. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that I realized my company was innovating within a pre-established “box.”

Leaders often rely on tried-and-true practices to be successful, such as strategic planning, annual objectives, and budgeting processes. During these workflows and meetings, it’s easy to feel like a visionary. After all, you’re looking years into the future and determining priorities. The problem is that these practices can act as boxes that prevent growth.

With the world changing so quickly, stubbornly striving toward an existing goal can cause you to miss opportunities. Case in point? The average lifespan of an S&P 500 company decreased from 61 years in 1958 to 18 years in 2011. It’s absurd to keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. Unless you break out of the workflow or process box that’s holding you back, you won’t be able to ensure the future of your company.

Workshops of the Future: Our Innovation Story

I’d like to say that we realized we were innovating within a box on our own, but the reality is that the Covid-19 pandemic severely impacted our business. If we waited until the lockdowns were over, our company would not have survived. (And our offerings wouldn’t have catered to customers in the next normal, either.)

As a company that promotes leadership and organizational development through training, one of our most profitable offerings had traditionally been in-person workshops. However, we hadn’t revised the format or approach of those workshops in years. The pandemic forced us to think about what we could do differently.

As a result, we dialed in on new learning concepts and started offering short, digital versions of our workshops. We also stepped back to look deeper at the relevance of what we do in an ever-changing world. This made us even stronger and more committed.

Telltale Signs You’re Innovating in a Box

If you find your team members putting their primary emphasis on planning and doing everything right the first time, there’s already a problem. Speed is the new currency, and this approach—no matter how well-executed—will impede your agility.

Additionally, a lack of innovation might also be rooted in a lack of good talent. Right now, everyone is competing for talent. According to CNBC, 95% of major U.S. corporations say it’s difficult to find workers for open positions now—a substantial increase from the 18% of respondents who felt that way in the first quarter of 2021.

Another symptom of innovating within a box is an ongoing sense of frustration. If it feels like you are running on a hamster wheel, it’s likely you might be. To leave the wheel, you will have to lead your team in committing to radical change.

How to Break Out of the Box

There has never been a better time for your company to break out of its innovation box. The world is changing rapidly, and current approaches and practices can become stale overnight. If you’re ready to spark true innovation, start by taking these four steps:

1. Adopt a mindset of curiosity. Experimentation creates energy and excitement. Even when you fail at new endeavors, you can learn from them and better prepare for the next time. As one McKinsey study points out, the transition from Covid-19 crisis mode to the next normal gives leaders the unique opportunity to reinvent themselves and their companies’ structures and goals.

2. Throw best practices out the window. Adhering to tried-and-true formulas isn’t necessarily the right approach to take. Instead, adopt a growth mindset. Pay attention to changes in the workforce, technology and increased global and domestic competition. By staying ahead of these trends and finding ways to apply them to your workforce proactively, you can future-proof your business.

3. Create a culture of commitment rather than compliance. When you build an environment of mutual respect and reward the people on your team, they show up differently. People want to work with people who value them—not organizations that treat them like cogs in a machine. Your employees will be much more likely to bring their best selves to work when they are motivated by a commitment to their colleagues and company.

4. Rethink your organizational structure. Hierarchies help organizations run on autopilot. This can be an extremely valuable attribute in times of flux and uncertainty, but it can also limit innovation. To avoid the negative effects of hierarchies, institute a network workforce model instead. Because networks are made up of systems of teams that aren’t defined by formal titles, they can better identify change and address obstacles, according to author and business thought leader John P. Kotter.

Although my company has historically prided itself on innovation and flexibility, our team members still rely too heavily on the way we’ve always done things. Covid-19 helped us return to a growth mindset, but it’s better to keep up with trends and future-looking data proactively. Business is much better beyond the constraints of the innovation box, so don’t let traditional processes, practices and strategies hold you back.


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