Most Companies Fail at Innovation – But Here’s What to Do Instead

What’s the most powerful word in business today? Innovation.

Read any blog, any news source, any prospectus and you will quickly stumble over “innovation” — how the company pursues innovation, how innovative the products are, and how “innovation” is a core value of the company.

And this is all well and good because innovation truly is what propels industries and markets ever forward.

But the real question smart companies should be encouraging every employee, in every role, to ask is: “What can I do, in what I do every day, to be more innovative? How can I innovate our product, our service approach, to better serve our customers, change the market, or push the company forward?”

Innovation can be “important small changes”

Unfortunately, too many people think innovation is too big for them or “not in my job description.” I believe that’s because we as leaders have failed to explain what real innovation actually looks like.

David Steinberg, chief executive of XL Marketing, gives a much better definition of innovation in a recent New York Times Corner Office column:

Innovation to me doesn’t have to be about creating the light bulb or the telegraph. Innovation can be very important small changes to something that’s already working. That’s the stuff that’s overlooked, and it can take things to the next level.”

Innovation is the perseverance to keep searching, to keep tweaking, to keep making something better. In reality, it’s usually many small innovations over time that result in a huge “new” innovation that gets all the press.

“The option others don’t see and don’t expect”

Kaihan Krippendorff explains it as committing to continually looking for the fourth option:

The ‘fourth option’ is the option others don’t see and don’t expect. Your competitors contemplate three choices and feel satisfied that they are considering enough. But the strategic innovator is not satisfied. She asks, what else? What other option are people overlooking?”

So, back to my original question – how do you encourage all employees to seek the fourth option, to pursue the small changes for continuous improvement?

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You must help employees see and understand what this looks like in their daily work. The quickest, most positive, and most effective way to do so is through strategic recognition. Every time an employee demonstrates an attribute of innovation in this way, recognize them for it.

Say, “John, thank you for contributing to our goal of continuous innovation with your diligence on the Suarez project. The way in which you kept asking the next question to drive to not just our standard solution, but a truly unique approach in this situation not only solved the client need, but gave us an avenue to advance our solution and meet an unexpected market need going forward. Well done!”

That specificity makes the difference for John by letting him know what exactly “innovation” looks like in his daily work. When publicized through an internal social newsfeed, it also serves as an excellent training mechanism for other employees who can see why John was recognized and emulate that behavior in their own work.

How is innovation encouraged in your organization? How are you innovative in your own work?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at


1 Comment on “Most Companies Fail at Innovation – But Here’s What to Do Instead

  1. We are like minds on this issue. At RE:INVENTION, we call this being “everyday inventive and reinventive.” While revolutionary ideas and quantum leaps get all the attention, “everyday inventive and reinventive” companies survive and thrive. Being everyday inventive and reinventive is not about creativity or patent applications; it’s about basic good business — everyday improvements, everyday progress, and great implementation. Far too many companies forget the basics. Little things actually mean a lot. Everyday inventive and reinventive companies achieve the greatest financial returns. They beget better products. They create sustainable value.

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