Many companies are interested in how Salesforce continues to be one of the most innovative companies in the world. Being in the privileged position of talking to a lot of our customers, and specifically about how we can ‘lift the lid’ on how we at Salesforce innovate, it’s an interesting discussion.

Innovation is the ‘strategic vision du jour’ of many a company executive today. Every executive I speak with is focused on the desire to drive disruptive innovation, foster an innovative culture, and cites innovation as a key strategic imperative. But when you question and attempt to understand what an executive team is doing to drive innovative in their organisation the conversation can get a bit defensive.

I get it. Being innovative is hard. Some would tell you that to be innovative you have to be creative. That innovation is not a process, rather looking for and leveraging inspiration. I disagree; innovation requires hard work and discipline. 

Innovation as a discipline

If I told you that I wanted to compete in a triathlon you’d tell me I need to implement and follow a training regime, aligned to a goal and a timeline. Eat well and give up chocolate. Get help where needed, follow a process and build muscle to help me compete to the best of my ability. Sound advice? So why do we think that innovation is different?

Innovation is a discipline, one that requires, firstly, clarity of the goal from the executive team to foster innovation, but secondly, and more importantly, a willingness to actually take part in the journey and stay the course. I’m not dismissing the need or the value that people bring to the innovation table, but as Andrea Ovans argues in ‘Is Innovation more about People or Process’, talented people can be stymied by bad process.  

I’m lucky to work for an organisation that has innovation at the core of its DNA, recognised consistently as one of the most innovative companies in the world, and doubly lucky that my role enables engagement with customers to lead them through an innovation process. Yes, I said a process. Because just as with the triathlon example, being innovative is about developing and then continuing to flex the innovation muscle. Disruptive innovation is what comes from the innovation itself - it’s not something you can just set out to do or be. 

Three ways to get started with disruptive innovation

So how do you build innovation muscle? As with any strategy, it needs to be set at executive level, but bought into and supported throughout the organisation. Being an innovative company is not an overnight achievement, however there are some great ways to get started.

1. Do your employees have permission to be innovative? Do they really? 

Saying to people they have permission doesn’t mean they really do. How do you enable great ideas to be captured, who decides which are the ones to be progressed and how does the idea get communicated and disseminated across the organisation?  

Ideas need a democratic organisation to truly flourish. Management must be prepared to stand back, let ideas become public and include diverse voices from across the organisation to decide which are the best. In the age of social and the ‘like’, submitting and democratising ideas is simpler and means good ideas can, literally, come from anywhere. 

2. Do you put your money where your mouth is? 

It’s not enough to support the capture and promotion of ideas - will you allocate funding to progress from idea to outcome? We all know at least one person in our lives who does a lot of talking, not so much doing. Being an innovative company is (initially) like playing a game of chicken; Executives saying, then actually doing, what they sign up to do. Not moving forward, as with any change program, can have a far-reaching impact on how your employees believe your organisation truly feels about change and innovation. 

Allocating an innovation fund, or providing innovation spending in a department budget demonstrates that innovation is an important part of what you do. As with any investment, there is no guarantee, and in fact I prefer to think of funding innovation as I would when deciding whether to loan money to a friend; don’t be prepared to loan it if you can’t cope with potentially never getting it back. 

3. Are you okay when not every idea pays off? 

Sir Ken Robinson, an education reformer, talks about and consults on how our education system is killing creativity and the impact this is having on innovation. As we grow from children to adults we become more afraid to ‘have a go’ and potentially to fail. Failure costs money. But without failure we don’t learn and we can’t improve. 

To be innovative we must first embrace the fear of failing. We assume that failure has to be big, costly, bad. Yet, when we look at the most famous innovators through history, Da Vinci, Guttenberg, Edison, Newton, Jobs they have one thing in common. They tried, they failed, they tried again. Edison is famous for saying

“I haven’t failed, I’ve just found

10,000 ways that won’t work.” 

Creating an ‘innovation lab’, whether that be a real or virtual concept, manned by volunteers or delegated resources from a diverse group of employees, enables ideas to be rapidly built to prove or disprove a theory. And in the doing comes the proving, potentially leading to real breakthroughs that help build your innovation muscle. 

The Salesforce innovation program allows us to expose how we innovate by lifting the lid on some of the methods we use in our organisation, providing insight to our customers and sharing our approach. It’s exciting, demonstrates that innovation processes work and creates a euphoria for participants, from C-level down when they’re working through the process and actively creating new ideas that bring innovation to their businesses. 

Call to action: Answer these 5 questions (and even better, poll your organisation and see what they say!)

  1. Is it easy to find the right people or departments to help you solve a problem on behalf of the customer? Is that interaction collaborative? 
  2. Do you have permission or autonomy to solve a customer’s problem and not have the solution questioned or criticised? 
  3. Do you have a mechanism to put forward ideas that you think could make a difference to your organisation, both culturally and commercially? 
  4. Do you know what your executive level is focussed on from an organisational perspective? 
  5. Have you been proactively asked for ideas on what you think could be ways to solve challenges within your organisation?

If the answers to these questions is a resounding no, your immediate call to action is to focus on building an innovation culture. 

We’d love to have a conversation with you on how we help our customers develop their innovation muscle. Reach out to your Account Executive for an initial discussion on how Ignite, or our Spark programme may help you and your company think differently. 

In the meantime, check out the Salesforce Advantage e-book to see how our customers are already benefiting from all that diruptive innovation muscle.