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Five Startup Strategies to Encourage Innovation

Diane Rucker is former Strategic Technology Manager at Seagate in Bloomington, MN and a member of the MIT EMBA class of 2014.

One evening, as I was walking by the MIT Media Lab, I noticed a man ahead of me carrying four or five laptop cases slung over his shoulders. I called out, “Even for MIT, that’s a lot of computers!” Turning to grin at me, he introduced himself as Kyle, an occasional Sherpa (and program director) for the Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship at MIT.

Kyle is an entrepreneur. He started his first business after graduating from college, two weeks after he was married. He sold the business four years later, but by then he had “caught the bug.” So far, he has three companies to his credit.

What makes the culture of entrepreneurship so exciting? And why are we drawn to those who innovate? We may not have the answers, but we can learn from both the successes and the failures of these entrepreneurs. This semester, I’m taking an extra class that looks at how culture, policy, talent, proximity, and ideas have a cluster effect – and how innovation can explode when the combination of factors reaches critical mass (as in Silicon Valley or Cambridge, Mass.). The MIT ecosystem is a great example. 

So what can we do as leaders to encourage innovation? It turns out that some of the most valuable changes we can make are simple:

1. Create Clusters – Set up small teams of people with a common goal who are willing to share ideas with each other. In some cases, it’s as simple as getting rid of the cubicles.

2. Find Time for Unstructured Thinking – It’s nearly impossible to innovate on a schedule, so find ways to give your team – and you – some time and space, away from the Task List.

3. Expand your Network – This is important for you and your team.  Find colleagues in a different work area or industry, and choose people who will disagree with you, honestly and sincerely.

4. Be (a Little) Uncomfortable – Comfort breeds complacency. Innovation comes from taking a risk, and trying something unexpected. If you want your team to be creative, you need to reward them for trying something new whether or not it works. Try starting a “Crazy Idea of the Week” contest and see what happens.

5. Change your Pattern – Take a walk around the building. Work in a different area. Get up and move around. Talk to others face-to-face and find out what interests them. One of my most successful and innovative changes – a shared business and IT strategy for development – came out of a 20-minute walk around the building.

MIT’s entrepreneurial ecosystem attracts people with a passion for change, and offers resources such as the Martin Trust Center and the MIT 100K competition to help them realize that change. And students in MIT’s Executive MBA program, like me, have the opportunity to work on business strategy for a technology startup during the week-long Innovation Driven Entrepreneurial Advantage (IDEA) module on campus.

In a big company, it can be challenging to find ways to nurture those seeds. After all, new ideas can threaten or disrupt a core business. Risky projects, or those without obvious returns, can be sidelined or suffer from lack of funding. And there are often internal barriers to getting a project approved, or to executing it within a company’s business systems.

Not everyone will choose to be an entrepreneur like Kyle. But each of us has invented a solution to a problem, fixed something, or made it better – and that means that we have the seeds of innovation inside of us. As leaders, it’s up to us to encourage those seeds to grow.

How do you promote innovation at your organization?

Originally Published: MIT Executive Insights Blog
Author: Diane Rucker