19 December 2021

How To Foster Continuous Innovation

Article originally posted on Forbes.

Paul Warburg, President and CEO at Xenon arc, discusses how to empower your team and improve profitability. Xenon arc is an innovative tech company seeking to revolutionize distribution in the chemical industry.

If you read my prior article on the small innovation mindset, then perhaps I have convinced you that incremental innovations are equally as valuable as one big bang innovation. But how do you create an environment in which small innovations are not only welcomed but also in continuous development?

I believe the intent to foster incremental innovation must be baked into the very fabric of your company and permeate all decisions and structures. There are several ways in which I have done this as CEO of a tech company in the chemical industry, and I believe these strategies can be applied to any business that is seeking innovation in the technical sphere.

Rethink IT strategy roles.

Can you imagine the stir it would cause to put a business leader with zero technical experience in an IT strategy role? It sounds disastrous, but this has been a key part of our recipe for success. My approach is to find smart problem-solvers from the business side of the house and put them in charge of IT strategy with the goal of optimizing the way we do business on the technical side.

These business leaders have intimate knowledge of the customer and critical use cases, so they are driven to find the best solutions for the customer. They also benefit from their own naivety and are willing to ask the “dumb” questions because they don’t know what is impossible on the technical side. They are free from the constrained mindset that is naturally developed by anyone working in the same field for a long time. These leaders push their IT teams to find solutions they may not have otherwise pursued.

Part of the reason this works for us is because these business leaders are humble and committed to learning. We also have an excellent team that is willing to teach them the ropes. These things must go hand-in-hand. Even if you think you cannot do this, whether it is because you don’t have a business leader you can spare or there is too much resistance internally, then you still might try a version of this on a smaller scale. Try out rotational roles in which business leaders walk alongside the IT team for periods of time to learn what they do, get to know them on a personal level, and get involved in decision-making. A smaller step like this will likely result in increased respect and collaboration — and ultimately better ideas.

Add process to the suggestion box.

As a business leader, you might intellectually understand that the people working at every level of your business have more intimate knowledge of your customers than you do simply due to the nature of their roles. Perhaps you might assume that managers will solicit and float their good ideas to senior management. But a faster way to surface good ideas is to create a suggestion box with a robust process that includes a commitment to review every idea submitted.

I hesitate to call it a “suggestion box” because that sounds trite. For us, it truly is an “idea accelerator” and an effective way in which we crowdsource ideas from within. We have a cross-functional team that reviews each and every submission in a rigorous process. This allows us to surface good ideas and insights quickly. These ideas fuel the IT strategy pipeline that often leads to exceptional innovation and increased customer satisfaction. For example, one idea that came from someone in the business intelligence side of the company led to an order automation tool that streamlined the overall process, which significantly reduced the number of touches needed by our internal team and considerably improved the overall customer experience.

“Amazon will allow us to better serve smaller makerspaces, hobbyists, and educational institutions that would benefit from our polypropylene innovations”

Empower department leaders.

When the goal is incremental innovation, there needs to be a well-oiled machine in place to generate small innovations at scale. After all, when more ideas are suggested, there are more ideas to review and thus more decisions to be made. The secret sauce is always your people and the way you manage them. Hire good people, and then empower them to make decisions without constant executive oversight. This creates a more efficient environment in which innovative ideas can be executed in a continuous cycle.

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