INNOVATE

Innovation is a Long Game—Here Are Five Ways To Win It

A culture of innovation begins with the founder

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BY Tricia V. Morente - 01 Jun 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

With the success of companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple in making their products and services an intrinsic part of our lives—the iPhone is practically an extension of the body at this point—it’s easy to forget that these blockbuster hits aren’t flash-in-the-pan moments of genius.

As much as it feels like these innovations were created at the speed of thought, they’re results of a long and steady stream of processes and improvement that took years to firmly establish. Even “overnight” gaming sensation Pokémon Go took decades to succeed, taking creator John Hanke 20 years and “10 level-ups,” as related in this Inc. article, for the game to become the breakthrough hit it is today. Facebook took co-founders Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz six years of coding, making mistakes, and recalibrating, while Google had already been working on Gmail for 10 years before it completely disrupted email in 2004.

Overnight success is a myth—in fact, there’s greater chance for you to get struck by lightning. But before you wallow in despair, one thing these companies have in common is a culture of innovation—and that, you can cultivate within your organization.

Here are five ways to encourage out-of-the-box thinking in your start-up:

1. Cultivate a relaxed and flexible atmosphere in your office

Create an empowering environment where there is room for innovative ideas to take root and grow. Remember that creativity is not something you can force out of people; neither is it something that will come naturally in a stifling and energy-depleting work environment.

Take stock of how you’re treating your team and the expectations you’ve set. As this article states, one innovation killer is “the belief that innovation will just happen. Innovation requires a proactive process that identifies, validates, and nurtures ideas into value.” It adds, “telling everyone to ‘think outside the box,’ hold a brainstorming session, then call it a day” is not going to transform your start-up into the next unicorn.

Joaquin Barandino, CTO & co-founder of Philippines-based SaaS start-up Squadzip, shares that when he assigns tasks to his team, “we tell them this is not written in stone. They can give their inputs. We point out problems or potential loopholes, and we get feedback from them, too. It’s a constant exchange of ideas where we also filter inputs that make things more complicated; it’s a balance.”

2. Hire for culture

When it comes to recruitment, go for people who share the same values you wish to uphold. Hire team members who are aligned with your vision and culture.

Squadzip CEO & co-founder Roman Mercado shares that they’re quite particular when hiring for their development team. “We look for developers who are vocal about what they like about certain products, and voice out their opinions,” he says, adding that when it comes to idea proposals, almost always, “An initial idea would often lead to an output that doesn’t follow the original idea, but even better. I think that’s the beauty of product development where you have developers who are more like artists instead of robots programming based on the specs you’ve set.”

3. Embrace diversity

A team comprising different backgrounds, passions, and capabilities translates to having a diverse set of ideas and problem-solving approaches under your belt, elevating your company’s level of excellence.

It’s this approach that’s enabled Myanmar health tech start-up Koe Koe Tech to disrupt Myanmar’s severely underfunded health sector. Says co-founder Michael Lwyn, Koe Koe Tech’s 30-strong team “comprise 50 percent women, and we have people of many ethnicities and religions on our staff. That is intentional—we aim to show, in part, that Myanmar’s diversity is a strength and not a cause for strife.”

4. Actively seek out important problems

While most people, in their fear of making mistakes, would avoid potential problems at all costs, according to this Inc. article, the most striking thing about how innovators approach problems is that “they didn’t wait for them to arise, but actively sought them out.” It’s that passion for solving problems, rather than any particular personality type or ambition, which separates all innovators from most people and organizations.

Innovation isn’t always about a breakthrough product—sometimes it’s all about the little things, little tweaks in your process to make things run better.

5. Great ideas are just exactly that—ideas. Walk the talk

At the end of the day, innovation is only worthwhile if it results in action. Choose the ideas worth acting upon, and devote the necessary time and resources to realize them.

But validate first, advises Hung Tran, founder of edtech start-up GotIt!. “I’ve seen many people coming up with an interesting idea and jump right in building it and ending up with a product or service that no one wants. Before you write a single line of code, make sure that your idea is a solution to a problem that many people have,” he says.

Once validated, set things in motion. Failure to do so will not only lead to loss of opportunity for your company, but it’ll lower employee morale. Your team may not be too keen on contributing their ideas if they feel there’s no point to the process.