Success with innovation might have nothing to do with the latest trends.

Often, the biggest difference is made by doing the mundane things differently, even if those seem boring or obvious.

At our latest Innov8rs Unconference, we discussed the concept of “Atomic Innovation” with Elvin Turner, Executive Innovation Coach and Author of “Be Less Zombie. Based on over 20 years of experience, Elvin shared five simple habits that make a big difference and can cause innovation to spread throughout our organizations.

Here’s a summary of what he shared.

Small Habits With A Disproportionate Impact On Innovation

It can be frustrating for innovators to waste their time and energy on implementing extensive change programs and see no difference afterward. Frequently, that’s not what has the most remarkable effect. To ignite atomic innovation – i.e., big transformations that come to life from little sparks – consider adopting the following five habits:

Habit 1: Using A Different Language

Most organizations don't have an innovation strategy that is meaningful, aligned, and connected to the overall strategy. In other words, in many organizations, innovation isn't strategically anchored.

“Often innovation shows up as a campaign or something we sometimes date or flirt with, but we're not 100% committed. And unless the whole organization is committed to innovation, then it very easily falls off the agenda”.

Long story short, the extent to which an organization can connect innovation to a strategic outcome and make it non-negotiable that's where innovation really sticks. And again, this may sound obvious but, at the end of the day, it doesn't happen in too many contexts. Instead, it’s very easy for what seems to be a priority project in the innovation space to suddenly take the backseat.

But why is all this? As innovators, we know that having leaders on board is crucial for innovation to spread throughout the organization. Yet most leaders haven't had very much innovation training in their careers. Accordingly, most don't know where to start when it comes to orchestrating innovation in real life and creating the context that can support it. And so no wonder you get comments like "innovation just slips through our fingers", "there's always something more urgent", and "thinking about the future is a luxury".

So what can innovators do about that? Using specific language seems to help move a conversation in a more strategic direction in the early days. It also helps ground innovation and gives it a strategic landing pad so that it's not so easily removed from the agenda. That being said, Elvin has witnessed that the language of “moving needles” works in almost every setting.

If you're struggling to get leaders on board, ask them what non-negotiable needles you need to move in the organization that aren't going to happen on their own. And then give innovation a real business case to highlight in which areas you have to start working more, what resources, processes, capabilities, culture, and leadership you'll need to move those needles.

Using a different language to talk about innovation and bring it down to the grassroots helps start the conversation. It helps connect with leaders who perhaps feel threatened by innovation because they simply don't have experience in it. So show leaders where you need to get to (i.e., which parts of the organization won't show up without innovation) and compare it with where you'll get to if nothing changes. The “growth gap” between those two points is nothing but the innovation agenda or the needles you're trying to move.

Habit 2: Mapping The Innovation Process

Especially if there's no innovation strategy, some innovation teams don’t even know what they should be innovating around and on, they don’t know what matters most, what's top of the list, and what to focus on. In this case, Elvin recommends mapping the process: “It’s a simple and effective tool, but you’ll be surprised by how much people love mapping processes, and what a helpful too often overlooked starting point for innovation and culture change it is”, says Elvin.

Just by identifying priorities, future-facing questions, constraints, frictions, strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities to do things much better, people get an instant map of what they do. And it's easier to connect them to innovation.

“When you map the process and see the issues to fix, suddenly, you're vested in it because you can see what matters to your world”.

Furthermore, mapping the process is a perfect place to share frustrations, opportunities, and priorities, understand what goes on in one another's lives, connect to purpose, and see the impact everyone makes on the whole.

So mapping the process is a simple, quick win; it’s a game changer. And you can get really sophisticated with this. But, in the early days, the key is keeping it as simple as possible when you're just trying to build the innovation muscle. It has to work for your team, even if it's just simple post-it notes.

Habit 3: Reframing And Lowering The Stakes

Leaders want bold ideas. After all, you get much more profit from a big idea that lands than lots of incremental ideas. However, it’s not easy to have these ideas. What’s the issue? What stops people from having and proposing big, bold ideas?

One thing that is most likely to impede people from putting big ideas forward is that the initial stakes are just too high. The current way of approaching innovation scares people; they have too much to lose, whether it’s their time or something else. As such, reframing and lowering those initial stakes is critical. And it all starts with teaching people to dream big, start small, and learn fast.

If everybody knows that the first thing they're going to work on is to clarify, learn, test, and understand if their ideas make sense, then everybody knows that the stakes are low. And this unlocks the appetite for people to bring new ideas to the table “because they know they're not signing up for that half a million euros nightmare like it’d happen in a Shark Tank or Dragon's Den program. They know they’re starting small and learning. They're not proving anything", specifies Elvin.

To ultimately help people take responsibility for what they're doing around creativity and innovation, leaders should visit innovation teams regularly and check what experiment they're working on. This is a very powerful cultural symbol that triggers a chain reaction behind it.

“Experimentation gains traction throughout the organization. It is often enough that one team starts working on experimentation for other teams to get curious and start rowing in the same direction”.

Habit 4: Fostering Team-Level Ownership

Simply having a team-level innovation plan can help you get out of a situation where innovation is not very aligned and organized, it's hard to measure, sporadic, patchy, an evening job for most, and no one knows what the ROI is. Again, the secret is to keep the plan straightforward and involve team members in defining it. The key points to clarify are essentially four:

  1. Team objectives (the “why”): the team should be aligned on how they will be measured and the key objectives.
  2. Innovation priorities (the “what”): to achieve the objectives, what are the performance needles to move? As accurately as possible, list the performance shifts the innovation team must deliver.
  3. Innovation projects (the “how”): add basic details of the priority projects that will help you achieve the innovation objectives.
  4. Ways of working improvements (the “who”): define what projects to prioritize and the “who” of them. This means that, as a team, you must clarify who you need to be for one another to deliver that level of innovation.

Clarifying all of this will at least help you start to have more rich conversations about how to work together as a team. And on this path, you can then make some choices innovating the team culture as moving forward. This is a really simple way of developing a rhythm and giving them a team process that ensures innovation is straightforward and there's no mystery to it, that it's aligned to what the organization is doing, and that everybody gets why they're doing it and taking responsibility for it.

Habit 5: Defining A New Rhythm For Innovation

Making innovation stick, making it the “new” ordinary, is simple and is the ultimate game changer. It boils down to taking innovation strategy, bringing it down to a team level, then operationalizing it, and putting it on the (weekly) team meeting agenda. Only if and when this happens you're going to talk about innovation and take it into account. Accordingly, take a few minutes to regularly understand how people's experiments and projects are going and what to recalibrate and remove. “I haven't seen many things more powerful than this simple, obvious thing”, wraps up Elvin.

In Summary

Sparking and sustaining a culture of innovation feels impossible inside many organizations. But it doesn’t have to. You don’t need to embark on ambitious innovation projects. All you need to do is get used to applying some practical and simple habits like asking different questions, using different languages, and mapping the innovation process.

No matter how obvious these practices may seem to you. Typically, it’s from the smallest things that the most meaningful innovation originates. And it’s the little things that can ultimately help you amplify the innovation culture and its impact within your organization.

To have immediate effects, we suggest you use a language linked to the overall organization’s strategy so that leaders can easily understand it.

Then take good care of the people in the innovation teams. They’re the primary source of new ideas. Still, if the initial stakes are too high or they do not even know how the innovation process is configured (and what their role is), they won’t be able to contribute to innovation success.

Finally, create a new rhythm of innovation that ensures that new projects consistently receive the attention they deserve. In this regard, including innovation in the team meeting agenda is an excellent starting point.