Promoting innovation: Practice makes better

Tamara Kleinberg
Tamara Kleinberg

Phil Castle, The Business Times

When it comes to promoting innovation, Tamara Kleinberg believes practice makes if not perfect, then at least much better.

There are a variety of ways businesses can practice innovation, Kleinberg said — by giving employees permission to innovate, for starters, but also collaborating as well as speaking the language of innovation.

Kleinberg, keynote speaker at a Grand Junction summit staged by the Western Colorado chapter of the Colorado Advanced Manufacturing Alliance, detailed what she said are seven-and-a-half steps to creating a culture of innovation.

The spirited presentation in a Colorado Mesa University ballroom had participants erecting towering structures atop their tables out of dishes, glasses and anything else they could find and, at one point, had Kleinberg jumping off a chair on stage.

It was all part of an effort Kleinberg described as helping people wake up to their ability to innovative.

Kleinberg has worked for more than 20 years to promote innovation, in part by helping companies develop new product and services. She once worked as one of the youngest people ever named to a leadership position in a global advertising agency. She said she’s been involved in nearly 30 businesses herself, some that achieved success and others that bombed.

Kleinberg’s latest enterprise is called TheShuuk.com, a Denver-based operation she founded to offer an online testing ground connecting inventors and entrepreneurs with what Kleinberg said is a community of thoughtful and engaged people who try new products and offer their opinions.

Some of the new products tested through the operation have included the Super Rope Cinch, a device that secures rope with a simple twist, and Flat Out of Heels, a line of rollable ballet-style flats designed to offer relief to women wearing painful high heels. The shoes are distributed in part through vending machines in such locations as airports and nightclubs.

The first step in creating a culture of innovation, Kleinberg said, is to give people permission to innovate. That means encouraging people to take risks and rewarding them for their behaviors rather than just outcomes. Everyone should be involved, she said. “Everybody’s responsible. Everybody’s accountable for innovation.”

The second step, Kleinberg said, is to practice, practice, practice. She compared the process to exercising at a gym to improve fitness. Those who don’t will discover when they most need to come up with an innovative approach to address a challenge, they can’t.

Success can sometimes become the enemy of innovation if businesses aren’t willing to constantly evolve, Kleinberg said, citing Sears and Kodak as two examples. While Sears long enjoyed catalog sales, the company wasn’t quick enough in adopting  online sales. Kodak similarly missed the opportunity to fully take advantage of the transition from film to digital photography, she said. “They circled the wagons and stopped being innovative.”

Businesses can also create a culture of innovation by realizing people bring different styles and strengths to the process, Kleinberg said. “How you innovative is unique to each of us.”

Kleinberg developed what she calls the Innovation Quotient Edge, a brief online assessment that identifies different innovation styles as well as what triggers innovation.

People who’re naturally inquisitive, for example, should be encouraged to ask questions and challenge assumptions. Those who are tweakers should be encouraged to make small changes that sometimes lead to big breakthroughs. While mavericks tend to push limits and champions foster innovations, agents are most often involved in the actual work, she added.

Kleinberg demonstrated what she was talking about by challenging participants to work with those at their tables to erect structures atop their tables using what was available in the room. The winning group stacked two chairs and then topped those with a sign grabbed off the stage. Kleinberg noted how different people in the groups offered different ideas and assumed different roles in the exercise.

Innovation also depends on bridging gaps between generating ideas and actually implementing them. That could mean building a prototype or coming up with another way to find out if a new product or service actually works, Kleinberg said. “You don’t know if a good idea is good until you get it out into the real world.”

It’s important, too, that businesses develop what Kleinberg called feedback loops in which employees offer comments, suggestions and ideas that are acted upon.

While innovation might start out with an individual, it flourishes as others contribute to the process, she said. “The ideas become bigger and brighter.”

In addition to collaboration, though, a culture of innovation depends on communication, Kleinberg said. Good communication in turn requires the  right language.

Presenting an idea and asking someone what they think forces an immediate up or down vote. Presenting an idea and asking someone what they’d do to improve on that idea engages them and encourages collaboration. “If you change your language, you can change the outcome.”

Yet another step toward creating a culture of innovation can be a frightening one, Kleinberg said. Slipping off her heels and perching barefoot atop a chair on stage, Kleinberg recounted an experience in which she tried bungee jumping and was instructed to count to three and leap into the void. She jumped on two. “If I’d waited one more second, I wouldn’t have jumped.”

To create a culture of innovation, businesses sometimes must take action rather than hesitate, she said. “Jump on two.”