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‘Every time a technology window opens, there is an opportunity to rearrange the industry.’ Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple and the man responsible for launching the iPhone and iPad. He was suggesting that the key to success is to be different, try something new and dare to believe it can work.

If sales are anything to go by, Jobs has a point. But if that isn’t enough to convince you, just look at today’s mobile phone market. Touch-screen phones are being introduced all the time as a variety of manufacturers try to compete with the iPhone. It’s not just the interface of mobile phones that has changed; by trying to challenge Apple’s dominance, other players in the market have ensured that the mobile phone industry has changed beyond all recognition.

It’s a similar story at Microsoft, where CEO Steve Ballmer famously stood up at a company conference extolling the virtues of the organisation’s developers. Quite simply, he recognised that without their ingenuity, their thirst for doing things differently, Microsoft would not be the dominant force it still is. Most people would think that running on 95% of the world’s computers is a significant achievement, but to Bullmer the key question is always ‘What next?’.

Looking to the future

If this approach is good enough for two of the world’s most successful global organisations it should come as no surprise that employers across the UK are seeking future managers and leaders they can rely on as ‘innovators’. Right now, they are looking for a way out of the country’s economic difficulties and there is an acceptance that ‘doing the same as we always have done’ is not good enough anymore.

An organisation’s ability to innovate is not only critical to its success, it is often a prerequisite for survival. But, in the twenty-first century the nature of innovation is changing. Successful innovation is less about ‘eureka’ moments or ‘silver bullet’ breakthroughs than about responding quickly to challenges, adopting new ideas and moving fast to seize opportunities.

The problem, as many employers voice, is that people are too afraid to try something different. That’s why a report, published by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) and NESTA in late 2009 explored what organisations are doing to promote innovation and what today’s graduates can do to ensure they are seen as the innovative, next, generation.

Cultivating innovation

Innovation for the Recovery, shows that 52% of respondents challenge the idea that UK organisations will rely on ‘more traditional work methods’ in the future. Clearly attitudes are shifting as people realise that to survive beyond the recession and prepare for recovery they need to act differently. The results show, for example, that 47% believe individuals will be given more freedom to try innovative ideas. One in 4 (24%) also suggest that ‘executives will spend more time on innovation than day to day operations’.

Of course, acting differently isn’t easy unless you know how. With this in mind, CMI’s research set about identifying the key characteristics that make up a good innovator. What stands out amongst many of the research findings is that many believe a change in behaviour is needed. Rather than focusing on personal achievement many believe that employers will seek team members who are co-operative and willing to combine their efforts.

Looking specifically about the character traits that makes an ‘innovative employee’, the research focused on individuals’ ability to embrace their colleagues’ initiatives, tackle difficult situations and encourage others. According to the data, the most commonly identified characteristic is that of ‘openness to ideas’ (59%), followed by ‘problem solving’ (50%) and ‘personal initiative’ (43%).

It is also clear from the research that individuals exhibiting a ‘willingness to take risks’ (28%) and with high levels of self-belief (29%) are sought after, as they are less inclined to rely on tried and tested approaches to workplace problems. Those with strong leadership skills were also identified by 33% of respondents as being most likely to contribute to an innovative working environment.

As we emerge from one of the deepest recessions in British economic history, it is clear that employers have recognised the value of finding and developing staff with a capacity to innovate. It is, after all, a skill that should be cherished because the ability to find and try something new or different is a critical differentiator for businesses in what is an increasingly competitive marketplace.

But if you are good at coming up with new ideas, don’t get complacent. The report makes it clear that employers also recognise that they cannot rely on the innovative skills of a few individuals to create a culture of innovation. Instead, many employers claim that attitudes to colleagues have changed due to the downturn, with two-thirds (69%) suggesting they have witnessed a ‘we’re in it together’ attitude at work. If you take this approach, rather than that of David Brent, you are more likely to succeed. Why? Simply because innovation can’t take place in a vacuum. To succeed you really need an environment where no idea is a bad idea and where individuals with a flair for ideas have the freedom to put them into action. You also need to know that if at first you don’t succeed, you will be allowed to try again.

After all, as Woody Allen put it, ‘if you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative’.

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