“If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.” We have all heard it. Most believe it. Some embrace it. And a few are “all in.”

In products and services businesses, B-to-B and B-to-C, large public companies and small private companies, innovation is the most important indicator of brand and company longevity. It is absolutely essential to relevance, greatness, and, ultimately, survival.

Meaningful innovation is hard. It’s time consuming. And it is not a project with an end date. We have identified five keys to success that are essential for brands and organizations interested in optimizing their innovation efforts.

  1. Innovation begins with your Vision and Values.

Let’s be clear: the word “Innovation” does not have to be at the core of an organization’s Greater Purpose. However, the singular, aspirational reason for being and the handful of behavioral tenets or values are the authentic drivers that provide direction and inspiration for every individual at an organization or brand to push toward constant improvement.

Crescent Communities is a real estate developer with residential, commercial, and multi-use projects across the United States. Greenhouse Partners was tasked with helping this decades-old organization come out of the Great Recession on the right path. Crescent had a strong heritage built around quality and relationships, but it needed to evolve. We articulated the organization’s new Vision and Values to set the tone and direction of a powerful and aggressive step forward. Most relevant to this discussion, one of the four values we created is “Innovate Always” – a mandate for every employee and partner to push themselves out of their comfort zones; take risks; think big. The leadership team at Crescent is now focused on “what’s next” in real estate – and often leading that discussion within the industry.

  1. Embed innovation in your culture.

If innovation is a constant need, not a project, it must be woven into the fabric of an organization – across people, processes, even your work environment. One key for ingraining innovation in your culture is embracing a diversity of people. By ensuring a range of backgrounds, expertise, and approach – each bringing distinct perspectives – you increase the likelihood of meaningful collisions and innovation that matters. In addition to a breadth of people, how those people interact will increase innovation productivity. Today, with many people looking at a screen while wearing headphones, it is especially important to create spaces and experiences that get cross-functional individuals and teams to interact. Great ideas never get fleshed out alone.

At Greenhouse Partners, culture has always been a priority. And an important part of our culture is a deep commitment to grow our people and our firm – driven by evolution and innovation. Instead of hiring a team made solely of agency specialists, we recruit smart problem solvers with diverse backgrounds and bring those people together in an environment that encourages ideas, discussion, and debate. We support that collaboration with a flat structure – empowering the best ideas to rise to the top. We mandate people and projects to look past easy answers and find inspiration and ideas across industry and geography. And we launch new companies ourselves. When innovation is a part of the way an organization lives and operates, it sticks.

  1. Risk taking should lead to reward.

Encouraging a team of people to come up with new ideas sounds easy. But only when that team of people feels comfortable with failure will they finally succeed. The safe ideas are usually not the ones that will change the trajectory of an organization or brand.

Dominos Pizza decided to embrace its subpar food quality. Can you imagine – a giant food company actively marketing that they were bad at food! But the transparency and absolute commitment to a new way led to one of the largest same-store quarterly sales growth of any established fast food company.

  1. Innovation can be big. And small.

People think of innovation as major, disruptive change. But just as often, innovation happens through consistent progress of small changes over time.

We have all heard of Google[x] – Google Inc.’s semi-secret project division – that is famous for Google Glass, the driverless car, and “Project Loon”: a network of sky-high balloons aiming to deliver Internet access to the masses. But the secret lab is not the only place where innovation lives. Every employee at Google is tasked with spending 20 percent of their time experimenting with their own ideas. Gmail, Google News, and AdSense, Google’s own advertising platform, all came out of “20 percent projects.” While a similar idea plays out every day across Silicon Valley, some say these tech companies simply jumped on the idea; 3M began its own “15 percent time” in 1948. Whether you have your own percent time or not, it is clear that organizations most successful at continuing to evolve over time have made innovation part of everyone’s DNA.

  1. Use stage-gate decision-making.

While the concept is not new, organizations still fail to take advantage of “stage-gate” innovation: creating processes and methodologies to systematically make strategic decisions as new products or services progress in a company’s R&D pipeline. By investing small amounts of resources in many ideas at the start, it is more likely that an organization or brand will have the capacity to discover those that have the highest potential. And by then assessing strength of ideas in different ways and along the way, they efficiently optimize the likelihood that the best innovations will make it to market down the road.

Greenhouse Partners implemented a multi-phase approach to innovation for MillerCoors. The company has had a dramatic impact on the light beer category over the past decade due to its commitment to product, packaging, and marketing innovation. Greenhouse began the engagement by creating a stage-gate process that inspired a maximum of ideas up front, and a system to assess them as time went by to ensure that time and resources were spent on the most promising ideas. To date, we have generated over 500 distinct innovations for the company; several of which have successfully gone to market.

So, in closing, is it hard? Yes. Time consuming? Definitely. Worth it? Only if you want to survive – or more importantly, lead. Any organization or brand can use these five principles to increase their productivity around innovation.

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