If You Want to be Relevant You Need to Innovate


In today’s environment, relevance is a matter of survival. Having a relevant organization means being pertinent, connected, or applicable to your company or industry. It means being current, not out of date when it comes to the latest practices and having a very strong value proposition for your internal or external clients. Organizations that are not relevant have become complacent or lazy and unable to mobilize change. They are obsolete and destined for outsourcing or extinction.

We’ve seen numerous organizations on this path: Blockbuster, Palm, AOL, and newspaper companies. Even the Arlington National Cemetery fell to this problem after the public found out they had misidentified hundreds of buried remains. Separate investigation reports pointed to the lack of established policies and procedures, a failure to automate records, and long-term systemic problems. Thankfully we have also seen many other organizations overcome obsolescence and remain relevant: Napster, Netflix, Google, and Facebook.

If you want to be relevant you need to innovate. When people think of innovation they think of big market disrupters that are totally new and fresh with lots of pizzazz. In organizations seeking relevance this is not the case. Innovation is incremental improvements, unique ways of doing the same thing, and performing the same function but with a different set of problems.

OK, you get that you need to be innovative, but you want to know how to take your first steps towards it. The most important first step is realizing innovation cannot be commanded it must grow out of a favorable environment. Variance in actions, style, and attitude must be allowed for innovation to flourish.

Let me give you an example of how important this is. Everyone knows that Singapore’s cities are meticulously clean with safe streets, minimal congestion, and well-behaved citizens. Government officials are very proud of this but back in the late 1990’s they recognized their cities lacked spontaneity and artistic creativity. They launched a campaign to audition and hire street performers. They then let actors, jugglers, and musicians that played American folk songs loose on the streets. Needless to say, it did little to boost their cities creativity and innovation because their overall governmental policy allowed for very little variance.

Here are some specifics that will help you create an environment that allows variance in action, style, and attitude.

  • As a leader you need to get uncomfortable. You need to exert less control and encourage employees to push the norms. There should be much less focus on avoiding failure and more on trying new things. Tell employees what you want and then let them get it done in their own unique way. Grow thicker skin and encourage employees to openly challenge you.
  • Make sure a portion of your key employees love change. This can be tested for with psychological assessments such as Myers-Brigg. These employees will want to change for change sake and will come up with lots of ways things should be different. They can be very hard to manage because you have to give them room for their ideas but they won’t be so difficult that they will cause your organization to wander. If you don’t have employees of this character then find them. It is pivotal.
  • Look for things your organization seems to hold onto because they are easy or require no effort to have around. Confront people that nay-say ideas because they have been tried before. Ask how your organization can do things differently even if they are not necessarily broken. Randomly pick something and ask your staff to change it and make it better.
  • Play with new technology even if you don’t currently have a need for it. Allow employees time to think, ponder, and conduct “what if” experiments. Make sure everyone is an expert at searching Google. Bring in experts from other companies, inside and outside of your industry, to talk about what they do. This will add fuel to your innovation opportunities.
  • Get close to your internal or external clients. Fully understand their environment and the day-to-day issues they encounter. Don’t focus only on the areas of their organization that you contribute to. This is where you can find special ways to help them get better. See if they will let you sit side saddle with them for a day (they can call it take your provider to work day).

There is no other path to becoming and remaining relevant. If you want your organization to have an extremely powerful value proposition then you have to innovate. This is not easy and will not happen over-night. Most importantly, it requires you, as a leader, to change in order to create change in your organization.