The solution to calculating the volume of an irregularly shaped object is said to have come to Archimedes, possibly the most accomplished mathematician of all time, while he was taking a bath in the second century BC. The story goes that he was tasked to determine if a crown contained pure gold of if it had some silver mixed into the metal composition. One day while taking a bath, Archimedes realized the water in the bath tub rose when he entered the water. He realized a measure of the water displacement could be used to determine the volume of any irregularly shaped object. By using the principle of buoyancy, he could determine if the crown had the same volume of gold as a solid gold measure. According to legend, he was so thrilled with his discovery that he ran naked through the streets of Sicily exclaiming “Eureka!”
Did this event actually occur as it has been passed down over the centuries? We will never know, and it really doesn’t matter. What we can learn from this story is not so much a description of the discovery of a mathematical principle, as it is a description of what can happen when an individual is open to the possibilities of innovation and is allowed to make discoveries to propel knowledge forward.
Realistically, not every discovery will be as paradigm shifting as the establishment of the Archimedes principle. And that is fine. What really matters is that you have created a culture where individuals feel unencumbered to explore the possibilities of what could be to help propel your organization forward. But what if someone in your organization does come up with a paradigm changing idea? Would your organization be open to the innovation?
Consider this example. Have you ever stopped to think about all the innovations Apple had to undertake to launch the iPod? They had to find a way to access the music libraries of bands and record labels, develop a way to monetize access to these songs, convince end users that they needed a new portable music player which would not contain hard copies (such as tapes or CD’s), invent a new type of file format so only songs purchased from their library could be played on their devices, brand their new product with distinctive features such as the wheel and white ear buds, and develop a platform that was so easy to use that it wouldn’t make sense to not use their MP3 player.
Now put that same series of problems into your company. How does your organizational culture feel about innovative ideas? Do you relish in the presence of thinking “what if” or of “doing it a different way”? Do you just talk about your support of innovation but in practice prefer people to stay in the here and now and to live in their own silos? Or does your organization openly discourage innovation and creative thinking?
Ask yourself, “What was the last major innovation we had as an organization?” Maybe it was a way to better track the flow of goods through your pipeline. Maybe it was a means to reduce the amount of raw materials or inventory you had to keep on hand. Maybe it was a way to gain more productivity out of a manufacturing process. Maybe it was a way to enhance the customer experience. Or maybe it was a better design for queue lines or your warehouse. Granted, none of these innovations are in themselves as paradigm shifting as the iPod. But when viewed in terms of the bigger picture of your organization’s long term success, each one of these examples can drive your company to new heights and give you a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
But what if you can’t think of an example of how your organization has demonstrated innovation recently? Or if you realize your company culture is actually opposed to innovation. Are you doomed for failure? Of course not. But it should serve as a wake-up call to look at your organizational culture and make some adjustments in how you operate every day. Consider implementing these ways of working into your culture to increase the level of innovation in your business.
- Openly encourage people to ask “what if”. If the answer to the question will not cause long-term damage to your brand or the organization as a whole, give your people the latitude to try their ideas out in a practical application.
- Listen. The best way to find innovative ideas is to listen to your people, to what troubles them, to what they think and feel. You may find you have challenges you never knew about. You may also find the answer to the problem sits in the mind of somebody in a different department or location.
- Provide forums for open communication. Nobody will ask “what if” when they are fearful of the repercussions for speaking up and sharing their ideas. Move away from autocratic leadership as much as possible.
- Form committees or ad-hoc teams to brainstorm around issues that keep troubling the organization. You may find the best innovations come from those individuals who are on the front-lines every day and have already created a “work around” to the issue.
- Demonstrate humility. Remember, great leaders know they don’t have the answers to every question. They even know that they don’t even know all the questions. Your people will become much more engaged and innovative when they feel a connection to the bigger picture and are included in the process.
Remember, some of the greatest ideas and innovations have come after repeated failure, or by observation of seemingly innocuous actions, or by sheer accident. But what has remained constant, is the openness of the individual to look for possibilities, and for these individuals to have the freedom to ask “what if”. It has been said “what got you here, won’t get you to where you want to go”. Create a culture of innovation to ensure your organization has plenty of “Eureka” moments in its future.