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The challenges of bringing innovation to life – balancing the idea vs reality

(Image credit: Image Credit: Igorstevanovic / Shutterstock)

It’s misleading to suggest that only small, nimble start-ups are capable of innovation. They are of course, and there are countless examples that could serve to prove that point, but the fact is, large enterprises often get overlooked.

Innovation hinges on the development of good ideas that come from people regardless of whether they work in a company that is large, medium or small. To put it simply, size doesn’t have to come into it. It’s the generation of the idea and what you do with it that counts. That begins and ends with a culture of innovation.    

That said, you can’t build a culture overnight. You need to be supportive, but most importantly you need to allow ideas to come from anywhere and anyone, and for those ideas to have the ability to filter right to the very top of the company.   

You have to ensure that those tasked with innovating have the framework, the support and the ability to bring the best ideas to life. So how do businesses create an environment that allows their employees to commit fully?  

It starts with the right mind-set 

Innovation is both a discipline and a mind-set. It shouldn’t live in one team. No one business has the golden key; however there are practical ways that all businesses can make this a reality. 

Having the freedom to adapt your mind-set is vital. The individual may not own a start-up, or even be employed by one, but those bringing the innovative technologies of the future to life are likely to get caught in the same whirlwind, so need the network and support to be truly creative.  

Elevating good ideas 

There was a time when top-down management hierarchies were the norm, with power, change and innovation starting in the boardroom. Today, this dynamic has shifted as we see more companies take on an inclusive management structure that encourages ideas to filter up from every level and every part of the organisation.   

To do this effectively, organisations need to create an atmosphere where everyone is approachable and all voices have the right to be heard. There needs to be a clear path to the top, an encompassing commitment to innovation that echoes across the company and an underlying open conversation with management.   

Time to dedicate and freedom to operate 

It is unrealistic to suggest that anyone can just wake up and be ‘innovative’, it takes dedication and the investment of time to ensure that the end result reflects the idea and can provide true benefit back to the organisation. In order to create this culture, businesses must empower employees to form their own venture teams around an idea, democratise decision-making and ultimately, encourage experimentation without the fear of failure.   

By allowing people to work autonomously and have flexibility and freedom, they can push boundaries and develop new ideas within any organisation. A clear example is the launch of Cisco’s thingQbator, an internal maker space that is designed to allow staff to experiment and experience different kinds of tech, building and collaborating on ideas with other colleagues.

Furthermore, this ethos also lends to the support of failure. If your employees are scared of failing they’re much less likely to risk pursuing the next ground-breaking idea. In contrast, if they have the network and company culture that will nurture and help learn from these mistakes, innovation will no doubt follow and a balance can be maintained.   

Coaching and mentoring 

Often, when working in small parts of a larger organisation, there is a risk of being siloed. As such, the positive and productive mentality of these individuals can be hit by a lack of inclusion and a frustration at being distanced, isolated and out of the loop. Providing coaching and mentors that capitalise on the experience from across the organisation can help to guide innovative teams. While traditional managers can be guilty of slowing down processes and sticking rigidly to hierarchy, coaches and mentors accelerate development by focusing on collaboration, paving the way forward, and clearing political or technical roadblocks.   

Celebrating the highs and working through the challenges 

There is a huge amount of possibility and pride to be taken by innovative teams and individuals with a disruptive and bold mindset. A clear example can be seen in the development of our Tetration Analytics, which came from our Alpha team principle. Established at grass roots level, the Alpha team saw a group of experts from across the organisation come together to focus solely on this innovative new project. The team worked under the radar and unknown to the wider business to create a solution to not only benefit employees, but customers as well. Tetration Analytics was a nugget of an idea that was passed up through the ranks, was given to an Alpha team to develop and became a viable product that was then announced by the CEO and select members of the team to the whole company. This inclusion and the celebration of success is vitally important if we are going to continue to task individuals to spearhead innovation.   

Balancing the idea vs. reality 

What is clear when discussing innovation is that it starts and ends with people. Building an intrapreneurial spirit with a culture that thrives on pushing boundaries, supporting technological evolution and investing time in new ideas has never been more important for businesses looking to innovate. 

However, for these individuals the passion to innovate can be completely all encompassing and in many ways relies on these employees with entrepreneurial spirit being able to dedicate their time to the development of an idea. 

It is therefore crucial that support, culture and spirit is embedded in the foundation of any business. This is what enables a company to introduce initiatives that balance the commitment required by innovators, the personal implications and the benefit to the business. 

With the speed at which we’re expected to innovate, only by creating a culture focused on nurturing will we continue to see exciting new technologies changing our definition of the future.   

 Alison Vincent, CTO of Cisco UKI 

Image Credit: Igorstevanovic / Shutterstock

Dr Alison Vincent is the Chief Technology Officer for Cisco in the UK and Ireland. She is a senior technical executive with 25 years experience in international leadership of software projects.