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Yes, innovation can grow in non-tech environments. Here are 5 ways to do it

Inspiring new ways of thinking and doing things at your organization can't be left to those with "innovation" in their titles.

The Independence Blue Cross building in Center City Philadelphia. (G. Fred DiBona Jr. Building in Philadelphia by Tupungato via Shutterstock)

The word “innovation” has come to be nearly synonymous with technology, but really, it’s about the process of developing new solutions for old problems.

That can include any kind of change that makes things more effective and efficient, or even questioning why things are done the way they’re done.

Such broad interpretation means that — despite it’s often tech-y inclination — so-called innovation can, indeed, happen in non-technical environments. Here are five ways to foster that line of thinking, especially in industries not often thought of as innovative, courtesy of an Introduced by panel held on the topic last month:

Encourage new ways of doing things.

For older companies and organizations — the youngest one represented by our panelists was Harmelin Media, at 38 years old — with long-term employees, the comfortable routine of doing things the way they’ve always been done can hinder innovation.

“From a culture perspective, [Independence Blue Cross] is over 90 years old,” said Michelle Histand, the Philadelphia-based health insurance giant’s director of innovation. Her innovation team consults with other departments about how they can apply design thinking principles to their work. “Part of our mission is to make sure people question why they’re doing things they way they are. We know you’ve done it this way for 10 years, but maybe there’s another way.”

And the Philadelphia Fire Department “still uses water on fire — but we’re more innovative than you might think,” said Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel. “Eighty percent of what we do is emergency medical care. Medicine has become high-tech and we deliver that. The city has six or seven severe fires a day on average. For us, we look at every fire and every building differently, and we’re constantly applying  innovative thinking to that. I think everybody has the chops [to be an innovator].

Don’t leave all innovation to those with innovation in their titles.

Many non-tech companies do hire positions with the word “innovation” in the title, while others don’t. But in any case, coming up with new and better ways to do things shouldn’t be entirely on a select team of defined innovators.

At Harmelin, a media agency based in Bala Cynwyd just outside of Philly, “labels like that can be more of a hinderance,” said VP of Business Intelligence Greg Ebbecke. “Collaboration is the focus.”

Though she does have the word in her title, Histand agreed.

“Our team is not solely responsible for innovation in the building,” she said. “We work with other teams; we don’t own it. We’re more like [guides]. For us, innovation titles were helpful because it made a statement to the organization. It was a signal that we were serious about this.”

Communicate changes to the front line.

Inevitably, some innovations are made without input from workers who sometimes feel as though changes are thrown at them with no explanation.

“It matters why and what problem we’re trying to solve, and if that can be articulated,” said The Clorox Company’s San Francisco-based head of open innovation, Navin Kunde, whose consumer product company has had a year of shifting focus and deprioritizing anything that doesn’t help the pandemic situation. “People on the front line get irritated when it’s thrown at them. People don’t like to change, so the reason to change needs to be stronger than the reason not to change.”

Find your innovation’s “currency.”

Often, the value of innovation is not financial profit — at least not at first.

“We have a budget for prototyping and testing,” said IBX’s Histand. “We are not expected to bring money back in. What matters is, did we improve a process?”

“Time is our currency,” said Harmelin’s Ebbecke. “Innovation has to be connected. If we can show demonstrable time savings, that has value to our customers.”

“Does innovation have to make money? Eventually, it does,” said Kunde. “But when you’re doing something that had never been done before, your currency is learning.”

Invest in inclusive and equitable culture.

Equity is good for innovation: The more experiences and backgrounds and awareness of problems you bring to the table, the more capable you’ll be to make valuable change.

“You really do have to do a lot of work to truly have an innovation culture,” said Commissioner Thiel. “A big piece of that is investing in a diverse, equitable and inclusive culture, rooted in respect and appreciation for everything that everyone brings to the table.”

Companies: Harmelin Media / Independence Blue Cross / Philadelphia Fire Department

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