How to innovate at your job

Deadlines. Sameness. Hyper customer growth. Technical debt. Lack of cross-functional domain understanding. Fear. Necessity to ask permission. Lack of visionary leadership. Lack of market understanding. Imitating competition. Herd mentality. Needing to please. Desire for promotions and pseudo recognition. Lack of passion. And, countless more is how innovation stops.

Where do you even start to innovate? The bigger the company is, the more harder innovation becomes and the more real a lot of above traits become. It is not that big companies are bad at innovating (in fact, some of the best companies that innovate are publicly traded companies that have found ways to empower their employees to innovate by creating a culture that dispels most of the above mentioned traits).

But you can create such a culture yourself irrespective of where you are working. A culture of innovation that is organically created by the employees and middle management sustains better than the cultural changes that are enforced top down. As leaders, it is definitely our responsibility to create an environment where innovation is nurtured. Unfortunately a lot of innovation gets stunted because of insecure middle management. But it is possible to elevate oneself above such situations and take ownership of creating a culture where innovation happens.

  1. Innovation starts with a question - No innovation happens when you accept things as they are. There is no question big or small, smart or dumb. Either a question has an answer or not. If it has an answer, it is either good or not. If it does not have an answer, either it had been attempted (to answer) before or not. And, understanding this and walking the path of discovering a good answer is the first step to innovating.
  2. Innovation sustains with curiosity and persistence - Starting an innovation is easy. Questions are the lowest barriers to entry. A large percentage of innovation gets nipped in the bud because of lack of curiosity. How far does our curiosity lead us in finding the right answer? And, how persistent are we in finding the right answer. For instance, are we willing to dig through messy code or processes to unearth why things were done the way they were? Are we able to get our feet into a muck that we did not create? Are we able to rip each band-aid that is stacked on top of each other to understand the roots of our company and our customers? Curiosity without persistence will douse innovation pretty fast.
  3. Innovation moves ahead because of imagination - Imagining a new world for our company and our customers is how innovation moves ahead to something more than an idea. Imagination is not merely a thought exercise. It is our ability to show something tangible built on our premise of how the world should look like. It lies in our ability to do extra and build whatever we can to make the idea a bit more real. This can be prototypes of a new fast database, or new authentication protocols, or mockup hardware, or product designs. This is not just imagination in our head, but our imagined world that our teams can touch and see.
  4. Innovation happens because of shared belief - If until the above step, a person can plow through carrying the seeds of innovation on their shoulders, this is where the team kicks in. Team leaders should create a world of shared belief within their teams to spur innovation further. A culture where ideas are shared and passed freely around among the members of a team is what spurs innovation further on. There is where the idea germinates from a seed to something more tangible and bigger with a life of its own. Fear of failure is rejected in favor of knowledge gained through experimentation.
  5. Innovation changes the fate of the company because it is one team - At the end of it all, there is only one team. Irrespective of how big a company is, we are all answerable to our customers. Under our customers, we are all one team - customer success. When we collectively believe that an idea changes the lives of our customers for good, the skunkworks projects no longer remain experimental but rather get in front of our customers in creative and low-risk ways. This becomes a product.

Let's innovate. For our customers and ourselves.