8 tips on how managers use their scope for digital innovation

You can also promote innovation in middle management

Innovation is a goal. Digitalization is a permanent challenge. Both challenges challenge companies and managers alike and make even committed employees sit up and take notice. New business fields based on new analysis methods could open up. But what can middle management executives do who cannot themselves turn their company around in the direction of consistent innovation? This article shows the scope for action and outlines the necessary steps.

Digitization is advancing and with it the desire not to miss anything. But it is unclear what can and cannot become established as innovation. Some companies are doing everything they can to create new knowledge and thus innovations at all costs, while others remain more conventional. This can be frustrating for dedicated visionary forces who would like to develop things further. How much room for maneuver can you use?

Particularly committed managers and employees have the potential to help develop, but there are obstacles in the way if the entire company does not focus on innovation. Managers still have the opportunity to promote innovation in their areas of responsibility. They can do this by opening small windows of opportunity for innovation for their employees along the lines of digitalization.

First steps – Identifying and understanding

A first step is to identify exactly where digitization could be effective in your area, because it has reached everyone and everything and, in fact, covers all work areas:

  • It facilitates work through virtual tools from task completion (butler functions) to the mapping of processes.
  • It provides tools that make work easier, such as smart pads in the field and zoom conferences.
  • It facilitates analysis through the evaluation of publicly available or own “big data”, thus providing new insights for research and development directions and can lead to new business areas.
  • In the form of apps, entire new business segments are built and operated. These can operate in addition to the traditional business field. The keywords here are spin-offs and platform economy. Examples can be found in insurance and banking, but the potential goes on.

Players are all those who can and want to collect and evaluate data. In Switzerland, the Open Data Policy allows data to be viewed and used commercially. Private companies collect data or set sensors (e.g. with regard to 5G) with the aim of securing new uses – but without already knowing their exact future use. For example, this is done in the logistics industry.

Semantic analysis of the Internet provides access to data, which in turn can be used for business purposes or analysis. At the latest now it becomes unmanageable, because neither cognitively nor arithmetically predictable where it will go in the future. Accordingly, research has long since moved away from linear processes and is now focusing on chaos theory and investigating self-organization in nature (see Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization).

The general situation is therefore confusing – but there is still a need for proactive action. Watchful managers can make way for the first time by anchoring a device for possible change or new things in their area of responsibility.

The principles for innovative strength – making the company fit

It is completely unpredictable to rely on guesses as to the exact direction in which things will go. For entrepreneurs and companies, for entire economic sectors as well as for government agencies, this means: if it is not possible to anticipate a linear development, one can only lag behind or: one must rely on one’s own innovative ability, which, as is well known, cannot be based on linearity. To do this, it helps to make it clear which are the innovation supporters:

  • Free access to knowledge within the company
  • Incentives to question the existing
  • Resources and freedom for employees to work with new ideas
  • Free space for work arrangements such as home office, furniture that encourages imagination, room division, break rooms that encourage collaboration, etc.
  • Collaboration tools that are visually visible for everyone and present the current status in a stream.
  • A top-down lived and credible culture that wants and appreciates innovation.
  • Trust in the employees and the unconditional will to create a culture of error

Changes require flexible management

Traditional management and organization is usually not consistently geared towards innovation. It has tasks, goals, plans and controls. These often span several years. At the latest with the possibility of completely redesigning procedures and working methods by means of digitalized tools, this structure of leadership reaches its limits, because it enables significantly faster working methods and ideas.

There are opportunities for managers and decision-makers in top management to use their leeway to promote innovation.

They can turn new goals top-down into strategy. However, if this is not available, the remaining managers can still prepare their own areas for innovation.

8 ways to promote innovation in your own area of responsibility

First of all, it is important to find out in which areas innovations can be desired: is it little things in the logistics area that can bring advantages? Are there process steps, for example in service industries, that can save time or improve quality or safety? Are there possible new services that could be created based on data? Steps that managers can take to achieve this have a small effect and look like the following:

  1. Clarification of goals: In creative circles, managers can discuss with employees where room for maneuver fits into the existing overall goals. This also includes considering where they are appropriate. If you are in mid-management, it is important to pay particular attention to where there is room for maneuver, but it is important to make use of it.
  2. Determine which employees are interested in developing innovations and give them the scope to brainstorm innovations with other employees if necessary.
  3. Depending on how the superordinate culture looks like, give these small laboratories you have founded their own smart names and communicate about them at certain intervals so that it is visible that “something is happening” in some places. In this way you give shape to the procedures and make them tangible. Note that depending on the prevailing corporate culture, you may need to protect these initiatives or take appropriate measures to maintain them.
  4. Depending on how you would like to evaluate or change your culture: communicate about the brainstorming or its results in order to maintain motivation and possibly win new “followers”. You will achieve more if you don’t talk yourself, but let the committed people report your successes.
  5. Make sure that these goals are appropriately anchored in the minds of your employees, otherwise you risk only a lame goodwill action, which quickly fizzles out and – worse – demotivates and robs you of credibility. This means setting goals, giving time and, if necessary, other resources.
  6. Let us try out innovations. Only prototypes can quickly clarify whether an idea is suitable. Continue to support the idea if there could be any potential in it.
  7. Very important: Do not “manage” these employees closely, do not control them, but let them decide for themselves at what intervals they want to report on their work. Protect these employees from slander in their “innovation camps”; put yourself in front of your own initiatives and those now involved in them.
  8. As promoters of small-scale and concrete innovations, they make use of collaboration opportunities with technical colleges and universities, which are happy to offer their students projects, the content of which you can determine, at a reasonable price.
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