Monday, February 28, 2011

Want improved innovation? Get more water coolers!

The big buzz for companies today is to espouse their desire to be innovative. By the way they tell it, everything – from slumping sales to anemic product offerings – can be revived through innovation. Yet, innovation seems a tricky thing to define. To some, it’s the big idea; have a grand idea and that is being innovative. But is it really? Everyone has ideas each day and yet no one seems to be swimming in profits. Ever have one of those moments when you think of a creative solution, only to see an ad for that very thing just moments later? Sure, we all have. And in that is the difference. Where many have ideas, few actually do something about it. People who take the idea and do something about it. To me, that’s where innovation happens.

Sure, but what’s that have to do with water coolers?

Most large companies have been busily down-sizing, right-sizing and off-shoring for years in an attempt to stay viable and competitive. In so doing, workloads have increased on staff and reduced the amount of “free” time during the workday. Being social at work, or at least the water cooler conversation, seems to have become a thing of the past. And that could be what’s killing innovation. No longer is there the ability to have casual conversation with co-workers, to talk about work, express ideas, and share in a way that builds connection and trust. And it’s these things; cross-pollination, communication, connectedness and trust that are the foundation for innovations.

So what’s a business to do?

The short answer is foster an environment of information sharing. For too long, businesses have focused on being efficient. Frivolity like off-topic conversations, information sharing or casual conversation, have been left to lunch-and-learn programs with most too busy or too burned out to attend. An investment must be made – during business hours – to stimulate activities that permit people to see over their cubicle wall and achieve the “Ah-Ha” moment when dots become connected in a new way. Interactions should be live; face to face events where people can connect, share, and communicate directly. No Web-Ex, no CBT’s, no dialing in. e-Communication is not communication and last I checked, my computer dislikes water!

How do you think companies can stimulate innovation?

Note: As an object lesson, apparently yours truly isn't the first to think of this!

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