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Creating Innovation

written by MO.com Subject Matter Resource Joy Schoffler

Over the past few years, most of us have had to innovate in one way or another in order make it through the market crash. People have had to change career paths, organizations have had to change product development direction. Even our government leadership has seen the need to innovate and focus more on the entrepreneurs and innovators. If we as a culture have learned anything from the crash, it is that we all must constantly change and reinvent ourselves in order to grow. We must innovate. But how can we achieve this? How can we change our businesses when we can barely get through today’s task list? The answer is through creating innovation first from within ourselves, within our workplaces, within our families, and the list goes on.

Life is about changing, adapting and growing. It is about developing the qualities that allow you to get back up, to never give up, to keep looking for a way to make things happen, to get things done. Creating innovation from within is about not quitting no matter what. While failure is a part of life, it is about learning to fail better—to truly innovate, you must take what you learn from you failures and use it to make things better.

As principal of Leverage PR, I have spent most of my career working in the most innovative business environment possible: with early stage startup companies. During this time, I have learned a great deal of valuable lessons on how successful individuals and businesses are able to excel with some pretty untypical success. Some of those successes include helping companies raise more than $20 million in capital, making the Inc. 500 list, securing numerous Fortune 500 accounts in the development stage, and experiencing tremendous growth.

The companies that I worked with that were able to experience the most success bred a culture where people could bring their ideas and were encouraged to share them. The ones that I saw fail were the ones that departmentalized creativity.

My background and experience are a little out of the norm. I just don’t see barriers in life. Having been raised in a family where neither of my parents even graduated high school, there was no money for college. Instead of feeling discouraged, I got a full-ride scholarship. I thought that’s just what you did in life, you worked harder.

I always wanted to serve in the military, so I took a semester off from school and joined the Army Reserve in 2001. Seeing how little change I could make on things I wanted to fix as an enlisted soldier, I applied for and was picked up by the officer program. As an officer, I was able to achieve my goals of helping take the section with the lowest scores in my unit to the one with the highest scores and working with some of the nation’s top military leaders at the Pentagon.

The rest of my career is packed full of more examples where innovation played a major role in my success as well as the success of the organizations I have worked with. Working with and consulting growth-phase companies, many of which were in the technology industry at their launch phases (one of the most innovative types of startups), I have been very lucky to work with organizations where it was an all-hands-on-deck effort. Here are some tips on how to build a truly innovative organization and life that I picked up along the way from great leaders I have worked with:

1. Never openly discourage employees (or family members, etc.) from coming up with ideas to fix a problem. The number one way to stifle innovation is by reprimanding or ignoring people who bring up new ideas. It is part of our human nature to create—we all want to feel that we are adding value and making a difference. Why do you think so many people choose to work at startups for lower pay? People value opportunity. If you give people the opportunity to bring ideas and be seen as innovators, then they will do so. Whether you are looking to improve a corporation or your home life, encourage all key stakeholders to come up with ideas to solve the problem, even your kids!

2. Encourage open communication and feedback through regular process discussion meetings where all are encouraged to bring ideas. One of the most important lessons I learned as a junior officer in the army was that the most successful leaders always encouraged even their lowest level people to give feedback and bring their ideas. They are your frontlines. They are interacting with your customers every day. Never compartmentalize creativity or business development. All of your people are customer service agents and sales people—no matter what their title is.

3. Have a monthly or quarterly contest where employees are invited to bring their best ideas for innovation to the table. You can make the reward as simple as the winner getting lunch with the company owner or other leadership.

4. Create “lessons learned” files and use every failure as a learning opportunity. Many of us in our personal and business lives don’t want to talk about failure—it hurts. Business leaders I have worked with who have been the most successful see failures as business expenses and work very hard to learn every lesson they can from them so they are not wasting their money.

5. Leverage public relations to encourage innovation. Put out a poll on your Facebook page, tweet out to your database or have a poll on your blog to ask customers for their ideas and advice (best ideas get a prize). You can also use tools like HARO and Pitchrate to send requests out to the general public asking for experts to give their advice on a topic related to your industry in exchange for being highlighted on your blog and social media networks.

6. Come up with ideas for others. Most people find it hard to be creative for themselves but see a million opportunities for others. By finding opportunity for your customers, you can increase the opportunity for yourself. One example of how we do this for our customers is by identifying new business opportunities for our social media management clients. While we are helping our customers become thought leaders in their industries and attracting large social media followings through sharing all of the latest industry news, we are also scanning that news and suggesting partnerships and potential customer bases based on content that is being discussed in the market.

7. Most importantly, remember that each and every one of us posses the ability to innovate and create within our minds. It all starts with the belief that the world is full of opportunity and possibility no matter what our background or experience level.

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