Everyone struggles with innovation. As established global companies and as startups. Perhaps more as startups, since innovation is possibly a key differentiator when you feel like you have been born into a world where a lot has already been invented and done before you.
At WukiLabs, we struggled with this question too. Was innovation important to the founders? Yes, it was. Were we hiring people who valued innovation? Yes, we were.
So what do you do with a bunch of people who believe innovation is important? Will innovation happen by itself? Our experience says not really. Attempts at innovation do naturally occur. But successful innovation requires an environment that encourages it, nurtures it and supports it.
And so we started to think about how we could create an environment that nurtured innovation and made it part of our startup’s DNA. Here are four things we found very useful.
Have a specific yet open-ended vision that everyone understands
We are about one idea but we are not about one product. “We make social platforms.” Our vision of social transformation through technology and people binds us together, no matter what we do. All our work in hardware, software and consulting has to lead to some form of social transformation. It has to change the way people interact, behave, and think. It has to make the world or some part of it, a better place. If an idea or opportunity does not do that, every one of the team knows we will not do it: no matter how exciting, how profitable or how popular. Yet, we really can do anything with a broad vision like that. Like fitting in multiple business verticals or creating a variety of products and platforms from social networks for mental health and emotional support to productivity apps.
Open your company and people to diverse experiences
Companies often conduct training programs on innovation, call speakers specializing in innovation, give time off for innovation. But varied experiences that offer wide exposure and open up people to new thoughts and feelings are key to innovation. At WukiLabs, we celebrate birthdays with experiences such as theatre, music recordings, plays and adventure sports, instead of presents; we participate in and support social causes such as LGBT rights; and volunteer with teaching time for HIV affected/ infected children. All these different experiences trigger realizations, conversations and therefore innovation. Our anonymous emotional support social network was born from this realization that many people need an outlet to share and feel supported but do not have one in society. Yet these difference experiences are all bound together by our vision of social transformation.
Use open and inclusive workspaces
Having cubicles, partitions and cabins is conducive to a focus on execution of tasks at hand. Not conducive to creativity and innovation. Fixed log in and log out times similarly can be constraining. As can the need to get home for basic necessities such as food and a shower. At WukiLabs, we have an open floor; wide flat tables with no partitions, no cabins for anyone except one meeting room for anyone to use on need basis, a fully functional kitchenette, a shower and mats and bedding to catch up on sleep when required. Thought we are new to our office and it’s not all setup, we have found that that freeing up physical spaces seems to free up the mind for creativity.
Innovation is very difficult in organizations where there are clear lines drawn between those who think and those who do. It is not the founders’ or leaders’ role to ideate and the team’s role to execute. The true spirit of innovation is to embrace and celebrate the fact that innovation can come from anyone anywhere. Encourage brainstorming, encourage building products that come from everyone’s ideas, get people to participate in and contribute to each other’s ideas. Each of our existing and in-progress product ideas have come from different people in the team who saw a need for innovation, raised it and created something to meet that need. It has helped to let people who come up with the idea to lead the project as far as possible and ensure while it is a WukiLabs product that the originator always gets credit, both internally and publicly.
There is a lot to harnessing the power of innovation in organizations as there is to ensuring innovative ideas get executed excellently to create great products and services. This post is about only the first lesson we have learnt. That the environment matters. If that is created, then, as Auguste Gusteau said, “Anyone can cook!”
By Radhika Subramanian, Co-Founder at WukiLabs