President Obama, in his recent State of the Union address, referred to the “Sputnik Moment” – that time back in 1957, when the U.S. realized that the Soviet Union had beat them in getting the first human made object to orbit the earth.   That object was called the Sputnik 1.  This was a humiliation to the U.S. and spurred them on to an increase in U.S. government spending on scientific research and education. It also inspired a generation of engineers and scientists who focused on innovation over the following years, fostering great success in the U.S.   

The point was that the U.S. now needs to recognize a “Sputnik Moment” in the fact that China and other countries are moving ahead much faster than the U.S. and the U.S. cannot afford to be complacent.  There needs to be new energy and resources put into innovation across the nation. 

This is equally relevant for Canadian organizations.    The need for innovation is becoming greater every day.   What is our competitive point of difference with emerging countries?    It certainly isn’t cost of labour, so we have comforted ourselves with the idea that we are a knowledge-based economy.   But emerging nations are gaining knowledge rapidly and learning from us;  many of  their brightest students graduate from our best schools. 

So continuous  innovation in new products, human resources, manufacturing, transportation, technology and marketing will all be critical to our success in the future.    The big question is “How do you foster innovation in your employees and build a culture that supports it?”    If we look at two high-profile examples – Microsoft and Apple – what is the difference here?    Certainly we would think of Apple as more innovative in recent years and their stock price reflects that.   What is the ” magic dust”  in their company and in their people and what is different ? 

There is no simple answer to this.    I had the great fortune to work for one of the most innovative packaged goods companies in the world for many years – PepsiCo – and observed many of the methodologies that worked there.   As a coach and consultant,  I have also worked with numerous other corporations who have had good and bad results in this area.   Here are some  key elements that I have observed that encourage innovation. 

1) Make sure that this attitude comes from the top and is supported throughout the organization.    Hire leaders for your business units who show enthusiasm for innovation, in addition to being competent.   Remember that most employees will try harder for a leader whom they like and respect, as well as challenges them.  In addition, the leader must foster a relatively flat organizational structure where every employee feels like an important contributor and can come forward with ideas.

2)  Hire the right people for this culture.   Employees must feel excited about the work itself and the team they are a part of.   They must also have great potential for filling an important role on the team.  Personality assessments and situational interviewing are important but also make sure that they meet the team before any final decisions are made.       Think of a sports team analogy – how do you choose the right players?    

3) Related to the above – Make sure that your current players are the right ones – Do they enjoy each other’s company and play as well as work hard together?  Playing means  anything that lightens up the moment such as humour or outrageous ideas.   This allows the brain to go into a different place for a few minutes and enhances creativity and teamwork.  It also makes work more fun.   Working hard means having enough passion about their role and the company that they are willing to work to get things done as well as think outside the box to make things better.    An attitude of “whatever it takes”   (within ethical boundaries) is critical as opposed to “whatever reason why not” .   

4) Even in large organizations, create smaller teams so employees can feel an integral part of what is happening.   If they feel like whatever they do doesn’t matter, that is how they will act.

5) Reward the right things.  Reward new ideas and successes.  Not every new idea is a success but if there are no new ideas, there will definitely be no successes.

6) In order to support all of the above, implement a coaching style of management that encourages employees to think for themselves with strong support from their managers.

Here is an interesting link on this topic that you might enjoy reading as well.


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