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Innovation – freedom, flexibility, and failure

Innovation – what a big word. But what does innovation really mean and what mindset and environment should be established to foster innovative thinking in your company?

So, where do we begin?

I must admit that there isn’t one, single definition of the term “innovation”. All of the definitions flying around on the Internet (and in books – yes, books still exist 😉 ) have two main components: innovations are always something “new” and always create some kind of “value”. But what does that mean exactly? First, let’s see what businessdictionary.com has to say about innovations in a business context.

A (possible) definition of innovation

The process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value or for which customers will pay.
However, there are also some other criteria a good or service must meet, for example:

  • It must be replicable at an economical cost
  • It must satisfy a specific need

In business, innovation is often a result of when ideas are applied by the company in order to further satisfy the needs and expectations of the customers.

So here we go! Let’s summarize what we just heard: we need new ideas that are replicable at economical costs to satisfy the needs and expectations of our customers better than before.

Alright, cool! So then, let’s start! But wait, how do I create a company with the right mindset and the right environment to encourage innovation? What kind of people should I hire? There’s a big difference in saying you’re innovative and being innovative, right? Well. Let’s have a look at a few companies and what they’re doing.

What characterizes truly innovative companies?

According to Boston Consulting Group, the top three innovative companies are: Apple, Alphabet and Amazon. Even if you might get that idea – naming your company something with “a” is not the first step on your way to innovation. 😉

What do these companies do differently compared to others? Let’s check their vision and mission statements.

Apple – Vision and mission

Vision
“To make the best products on earth, and to leave the world better than we found it.”
Mission
“To bring the best personal computing products and support to students, educators, designers, scientists, engineers, businesspersons and consumers in over 140 countries around the world.”

Alphabet – Vision and Mission

Vision
“Our vision is to remain a place of incredible creativity and innovation.”
Mission
“Alphabet’s mission is to make the world around you universally accessible and useful.”

Amazon – Vision and Mission

Vision
“To be Earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”
Mission
“We strive to offer our customers the lowest possible prices, the best available selection, and the utmost convenience.”

As we can see, most of them have a few components of innovation in their mission and vision already. Some of them include innovation by name and some mention it indirectly by talking about customer needs they want to meet with perfection.

Okay, I think we can say that these companies embody innovation every day – I mean that’s their vision and mission, right? So, how does working for these innovators look like? Can we find common habits, settings, or rules?

Company culture that drives innovation

When we’re talking about innovation there’s no way to not talk about Apple. Former CEO Steve Jobs was famous for his innovative spirit. Not an easy person to deal with, for sure, but everyone would agree that he built the foundation for Apple to continuously top the lists of most innovative companies year after year. Sure, you could discuss if Apple is still innovative without Steve, but that’s a discussion we won’t get into right now. Let’s dig deeper into the rules or habits Apple implement to foster innovation.

Apple’s rules for innovation

There are eight rules Apple has defined for ongoing innovation. I picked a few of them which stand out in my opinion.

  • Put people first
  • Align corporate culture with innovation strategy
  • Hire smart people, then empower them
  • Balance structure and flexibility

Google’s company culture

Officially, the list of most innovative companies names Alphabet, but I’d still like to use Google as an example, as Alphabet is the conglomerate of different companies of which Google is the biggest and most well-known. Let’s go through some of Google’s ten core values:

  • Focus on the user and all else will follow.
  • It’s best to do one thing really, really well.
  • Fast is better than slow.
  • You can make money without doing evil.
  • You can be serious without a suit.
  • Great just isn’t good enough.

Amazon’s company culture

Of course, we’ve all heard of the discussions about whether Amazon is a good workplace or not and whether the company culture is good or bad. That’s a question I won’t speculate further about in this article – let’s focus on what Amazon themselves say about their culture.
“At Amazon, we work with smart, passionate people who are building new products and services every day on behalf of our customers.”

“Our leadership principles empower us to be owners and innovators while maintaining our customer centricity. We’re willing to take risks – innovation requires failing.”

What we can learn from the innovation drivers Apple, Alphabet, and Amazon

Okay, now we know about the mission, vision, and corporate culture of these three companies – what can we learn? Can we spot common themes? How can we use them for our own company?

  1. Put your customers first – the rest will follow

    What all three of these innovative companies have in common is the will to create the best products for their customers. They put the customers in the center of their universe, and they’re driven by the will to develop the best products for those customers. Innovation then springs up, almost automatically, by thinking about ways to make life easier for customers.

  2. Choose the right people – and give them freedom
    There’s a famous sentence by Steve Jobs which describes this point perfectly. He said, “Hire smart people and let them tell you what to do.” That means you should have the idea as well as the courage to give your employees freedom to develop and the power to do what they’re best at.
  3. Find the right balance between structure and flexibility
    Big companies need structure, otherwise deadlines won’t be met and teams would work whenever they want and never together (in the worst case). Still, creativity needs freedom. Innovation needs freedom. And your highly skilled employees will need an environment that supports them and doesn’t restrict them – a.k.a. freedom. Good ideas don’t necessarily pop up exclusively from 9 to 
  4. Innovation requires failing
    If I had to name one main learning we should all take with us from this article, it would be this: perfection is still one of the biggest obstacles when it comes to our working culture. We fear failure and, far too often, making a mistake still leads to a serious conversation with your boss or even being afraid of being fired. However, if you don’t accept failure as something positive because you had the courage to experiment and try something new, you will never be truly innovative.

Did you like what you just read and are curious how you can be truly innovative? Then I think you should join our online event “Digital Thinkers Forum”. One of the sessions will be held by top speaker Gerriet Danz – innovation reporter, author, and university lecturer. As a best-selling author and lecturer at the Management School St. Gallen, Gerriet Danz examines the conditions in which people can think outside of the box and innovate.

digital thinkers forum

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When Simone is not working on superb texts for Testbirds, she and her horse live it up on the tournament areas in Bavaria.

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