Faced with the ongoing effects of the pandemic and the uncertain future that lies ahead, every company needs to innovate to set itself apart and succeed. Most seem to realize this fact. According to a 2021 Boston Consulting Group survey, 75% of companies rank innovation among their top three priorities. That’s a 10% rise over last year. Unfortunately, as most executives know from experience, all companies hope to innovate—but far fewer actually do.
This isn’t necessarily surprising considering game-changing, groundbreaking ideas never look obvious. Companies must rigorously hunt them down, and many assume they need outside assistance and perspectives to locate those ideas if they haven’t found them already.
However, I want to challenge the notion that true innovation comes from external sources. Not only is there no good data to back this up, but my own organization has also had the most success innovating from within. I believe any team can become an engine of innovation. In fact, I think existing teams are the very best source for bold new ways of doing business. Here’s why:
1. Internal talent brings institutional knowledge to the table.
Bringing in an outsider to help with innovation means putting them through a lengthy onboarding process to get them up to speed. They will need to know the ins and outs of your company in depth before they can find ways to innovate on what the company already does. It can take weeks or months to complete this process. And arguably, no outsider can know a company better than the people already inside.
Internal talent understands your company’s makeup, history, strengths, and weaknesses firsthand. Those employees have the best perspective on what works, what doesn’t, and what’s realistic. In many cases, your current team has already discovered innovations that make the workday more effective, but they get mislabeled as “workarounds.”
At my own company, we make sure that good, innovative ideas get acknowledged as such by relying on a dedicated innovation team. It has 12 members total (one from each of our primary areas of focus) who meet to brainstorm and nurture innovative ideas in all forms. By bringing together different experts and breaking people out of their normal roles and routines, our innovation team gains a new perspective on the company. We don’t hope for innovation to happen or ask someone external to make it happen for us — we create the conditions in which innovation thrives.
2. Current teams know the industry and customers.
Many customers also have great ideas surrounding how to innovate. After all, they communicate what they like and don’t about your product or service. In some cases, they even offer up brilliant ways to improve what your company does. Giving customers what they say they want can be the most assured way to innovate given that there’s less risk associated with the change.
It might seem logical to hire a firm to study what customers want, but your internal teams that serve these customers already have solutions in mind. They interact with people every day who have strong opinions about your product, service or the entire industry. Tapping these teams can help expedite innovation by revealing where opportunities exist to solve customer pain points or fill unmet needs.
Some innovations might improve the internal workings of your company, but the better ones improve your customer experience. And the best ones affect your industry as a whole, pushing everyone to expect more and do better. We encourage our innovation team to think bigger than the borders of our company, and we rely heavily on direct customer feedback to extend our vision.
3. Existing employees have heart and passion.
Your employees have the most personal investment in innovation. Either they want to innovate to make their own workdays run smoother, or they want to innovate the customer experience so the company does better. Regardless, people who already work for your organization will care more about discovering impactful innovation than someone brought in from outside to serve on a temporary basis.
The heart and passion of existing staff really become clear once your teams have the time, resources, and encouragement to focus on innovation exclusively. Our innovation team has risen to the occasion more times than I can count. They’ve also become an inspiration for the rest of the company, which is now eager to help explore, iterate, and implement new ideas. In that way, innovation is infectious — which wouldn’t always be the case if it was run by people outside the organization.
To give an example, our entire company has invested massive amounts of blood, sweat, and tears to refine the customer experience around one of our products. Although this was exhausting, everyone agrees it was extremely gratifying to make something objectively better than before and raise the bar for our industry. I have discovered that if you give staff the opportunity to innovate, they will run with it faster and farther than anyone thought possible.
Discovering ways to innovate starts by knowing where to look. More companies should focus internally first and foremost if they want to reach new and innovative solutions and ideas. You might be amazed by what your teams come up with.