Encouraging Innovation From the Outside In

Encouraging Innovation From the Outside In

This article was updated on August 27, 2018.

Culture can make or break an organization. High-profile businesses such as Apple, Google and Zappos are defined and identified by it. But sometimes culture can conflict with another factor that helps organizations be successful — innovation at work. That's because culture can lead to resistance to innovation, especially when it's made by an outsider. That resistance even has a name — "not invented here" syndrome — where a way of doing things innovated by a competitor or outsider is either ignored, or observed but dismissed.

Successful Outsider Thinking

According to The New York Times (NYT), a classic example of outsider thinking is the now ubiquitous container used for transporting almost everything on purpose-built ships. The post World War II years saw incredible growth in international trade, and shipping businesses believed that faster ships were the solution to getting more goods to market. It took a truck driver, Malcolm McLean, to see that faster ships weren't the answer. It was faster and more efficient loading of ships at docks that would lead to faster shipping, as well as an enormous reduction in costs (from $6 to 16 cents per ton). "The lesson here is that outsiders often see solutions that insiders, the so-called experts, miss," notes the NYT.

McLean's innovation was ignored by the market for years because he was an outsider — his ideas appeared alien and contrary to vested interests. He had to buy his own ships to prove his solution was the way forward, and in doing so gave the world's economy a boost unlike almost any other. Today, we often still see the rejection of outsider thinking. When Apple introduced the iPhone, even it was met with doubt. As Business Insider notes, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was one of its biggest skeptics.

How do you avoid rigid thinking in your own organization and encourage innovation at work? The answer could be to start thinking like an outsider.

3 Ways to Inspire Innovation at Your Organization

1. Foster innovative thinking

According to Business Insider, psychologist Robert Sternberg's "propulsion theory" suggests that creativity comes from risk taking and ideas that shift from current paradigms. This requires a brave style of leadership and vision that makes room for risk without punishment and potential failures in order to eventually uncover true innovation.

2. Create space for everyone to be heard

Instill in your employees the passion and confidence in sharing information and ideas. Make sure they know their voice will be heard and respected, even if their ideas are outside their area of expertise. It doesn't matter if they're a receptionist, technician or CEO — everyone sees the organization and the work it does from a different perspective and can spot innovation and efficiencies that may be invisible to others.

3. Implement a process to make it happen

Be sure to set guidelines and structure around innovation. It's important to ensure ideas align with your organizational strategy and values. This is where HR can play a part in the process. For example, what are the challenges you face as an organization? Where appropriate, make these known to your employees and call for solutions. Capture those ideas and identify achievable outcomes. Then, implement and evaluate. Transparency is the key to success here — ensure those responsible are kept informed and ultimately recognized for their contributions.

Corporate culture can make, or break, your organization. If it's one that accepts, encourages and celebrates all ideas and knowledge — however different — it can also help you grow.