What is innovation? We could turn to the Oxford English Dictionary definition – “the introduction of new things, ideas, or ways of doing something” – or even quote former president Barack Obama – “Innovation is the creation of something that improves the way we live our lives.”

But my personal favorite is, in fact, an equation, which I believe is credited to Edward Roberts and is taught by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Innovation = invention x commercialization.

The premise is that if either invention or commercialization is missing, there is no value and, consequently, no genuine innovation. So, what does it take to drive innovation in your organization? Here are six core enablers.

Build a Culture of Innovation

“For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate.”
– Margaret Heffernan, CEO and author

Innovation can only blossom in a culture where its leadership encourages ideas from everyone, from junior workers to the director. Financial incentives and gamification can help, but great cultures run deeper. People need the freedom – and confidence – to suggest ideas no matter how bold.

Think of those outlandish fashions on the catwalks of Paris, London, and Milan. The outfits that ultimately roll off the production lines and into stores are simpler versions of those concepts. So, be open to the art of the possible – in the beginning, no idea is a bad idea!

Organizations that make time for their people to learn are simultaneously making time for their people to be creative. Learning leads to imagination and cross-pollination, resulting in action and, eventually, innovation.

Flat management structures can help companies to be more innovative, blended with cross-functional collaboration. If a flat structure and open communication are not in reach right now, consider recruiting a team of innovation champions. Their role is to solicit ideas company-wide and facilitate workshops for brainstorming and debate. When people come together in a safe and empowering space, ideas grow wings and innovation will fly.

Foster Diverse Teams

“Diverse and inclusive teams are the engines of innovation.”
Great Place to Work

Research by the Wall Street Journal found that socially diverse teams are more innovative than homogeneous teams. Innovation is born from an innate knowledge of your target audience’s needs.  As most customer bases are varied, it takes a multifaceted group to understand their pains and desires.

If you want your organization to be more innovative, start with your hiring practices. And in the era of remote working, the talent pool open to you needn’t be limited to your doorstep.

Never Forget the Humans

“For innovation to be successful, the perspective of every human directly and indirectly impacted by the innovation needs to be top of mind.”
Ben Gilchriest, global VP, SAP

In his Forbes article, Gilchriest says that human-centered innovation is the way out of the proof-of-concept trap. Keeping people at the heart of new solutions is crucial. Gilchriest argues that four factors are fundamental to successful innovation:

  • Desirability: defining the value to the consumer
  • Feasibility: the idea’s technical and regulatory workability
  • Viability: the commercial case for the idea
  • Scalability: how the concept can be scaled from a business and technology perspective

In too many instances, the innovation process focuses on only one or two of these factors. Taking a human-centered approach ensures that those the technology touches remain central.

Understand those who will interact with or benefit from the innovation – from internal users to end customers – and continuously look for ways to delight them.

View Failure Through the Lens of Opportunity 

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
– 16th-century German proverb meaning don’t discard something valuable along with something undesirable

American entrepreneur Jeff Bezos left a trail of failed ideas in his wake. These included an online auction site, which evolved into zShops. Amid these failures lay the kernels of brilliance that would set the foundation for the e-commerce behemoth Amazon.

Not all concepts will work the first time. Learning from past mistakes and evolving ideas are vital for innovation.

Learn from Your Critics and Detractors

“You have so much to learn from your enemies.”
– Eckhart Tolle

Now, I’m not suggesting that you should regard your critics and detractors as enemies. I merely quote Tolle to point out that those who speak negatively of your company can be your best teachers. It’s about having the humility to put aside the (entirely human) tendency to be defensive and honestly answer, ‘Are they right?’

Detach yourself from any emotive narrative and look for ways to prove – not disprove – your critics’ views. In doing so, you might well pull opportunities to innovate out from the shadows and into the light.

Where do you begin? Social media listening is one way to learn what people are saying about your products or solutions. And finding ways to capture feedback – both structured and unstructured – should pay dividends. Make it as easy as possible for customers to tell you what they think. And give those in account management and customer service roles the means to share feedback and anecdotal evidence in the ordinary course of their day.

Know Your Competition

“Whether it’s Google or Apple or free software, we’ve got some fantastic competitors and it keeps us on our toes.”
— Bill Gates

Thriving organizations and entrepreneurs do not function in a vacuum. They are acutely aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their competitors and closely monitor what they are doing.

If your company is not in the top spot, understanding why could help you identify what innovations are necessary to get you there. I’m not suggesting copying something already in the marketplace and making it better – that isn’t innovation. Instead, be inspired by what the competition is doing brilliantly and look for gaps your company could fill.

Spark Alchemy in Your Organization

I hope these enablers of innovation spark alchemy in your organization. But change – especially change that endures – requires persistence, perspective, empathy, and no small degree of energy!

My advice is to begin by tackling the ‘low-hanging fruit.’ What small changes can you make today, tomorrow, and next week? An incremental approach is more manageable, and as people begin to see the positive impact, they will be more open to supporting your initiatives. Feel free to connect with me and share your thoughts.

Guido Schlief is senior vice president and head of Services for Middle & Eastern Europe at SAP.