“Innovation! We need more innovation!”
I hear this call for innovation not only in my conversations with leaders in big corporations with R&D units, but in companies of all sizes, and even in established institutions like universities. People feel the pressure to produce like startups, constantly creating something new and launching it with a “bang.” Expand! Go global! The constant demand for ‘more and faster’ drives companies to seriously search ways how they can accelerate innovation.
As a humanist, I believe that the innovativeness of an organization is a result of the creativity, diversity of thought and adaptability of the people who work there. It’s the leader’s job to create a culture in which these three key elements of innovativeness are encouraged, expressed and exhibited both at a personal and the organizational level. For a leader to catalyze innovation, they need to become intentional about their organization’s Adaptability, Creativity, and Diversity. These three aren’t some abstract meta-level organizational constructs, but they’re personal capacities and experiences. When leaders realize this, innovation becomes “what we do here.”
Ability to translate the demands of the business environment—the customers’ needs and wants and the trends in technological evolution—into actions as they pertain to new product or service development is dependent upon how adaptable the organization is. I know a company is adaptable when I hear questions like the following at all levels and in all teams: “How are our customers involved in our new product/service development? Are we listening to our customer complaints? What are we overlooking? And what are we going to do about it now? What are we changing about our product/service or our processes to better serve the customer? ”
The mantra at Amazon is to be “obsessive” about the customer needs. Developing employees’ ability to understand what customers want, change in response to new demands, and continuously learn new skills and technologies will lead to market leadership and financial success.
It’s much easier to say that “we should be open to creating change based on what is trending” than to practice it. “Shoulds” are for those who aren’t really accountable, who aren’t really committed, and who do not really follow through. Practicing openness to what’s trending can be exhausting. The minute you think you figured out what your customers want or which technologies to use to serve them, things change. However, the wise leaders keep pivoting.
Some of the best learning comes from feedback—internal and external. But feedback can be uncomfortable, annoying, and sometimes it hurts our egos. And therefore, many would rather avoid it. Most of us take feedback personally because it often feels like personalized attacks. Most people just don’t know how to give or receive feedback well. It’s especially detrimental when leaders are protected from honest feedback or unable to learn from feedback. If it’s hard to grow from feedback on a personal level imagine it being multiplied at an organizational level when a multiplicity of egos is involved!
This is why “organizational learning” doesn’t take place unless people in the organization learn. And they learn only if the leader makes learning safe. The leader’s attitude infiltrates the organization. How does she or he deal with and talk about “failures” and “mistakes” in their organization? Are people being supported in their learning without making them feel embarrassed and shamed? Is it OK to admit that it’s time for a “do-over”?
It matters how leaders react.
The level of risk-taking in an organization depends on the consequences for a failed attempt. The “accepted level of risk” lives in the culture, often without anyone ever naming it. It’s a mindset that cascades throughout the organization depending on what it means for the leader. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has been quoted saying that “The biggest risk is not taking any risk… In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.” Being able to take risks is to accept the potential for failure just as much as for success.
Creativity often gets a bad rap in business circles because creative people are often perceived as dreamers, not doers. However, in a rapidly changing global business environment, everyone needs to call on their creative and intuitive side more than ever. Decisions must be made on an approximate basis. Leaders don’t have the luxury of time to find “proofs” as it was demanded of the intuitive genius mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (as in depicted in the movie The Man Who Knew Infinity) in the early 1900’s.
Creativity is more than dreaming; it’s about tolerance for ambiguity. It’s about having a curious mind, having more questions than answers, and having a belief that “there must be a way”. In learning cultures, people challenge the status quo, and it’s a good thing. This helps to recognize potential inefficiencies. Bridging seemingly not connected elements in new ways and seeing patterns where they were invisible before are seeds for innovation. The culture must be such that people don’t hold back their ideas, but they’re nurtured and developed. Because even the most creative idea is not an innovation unless it’s put into use, shared and scaled.
A diverse and inclusive workforce is the best way to attract top talent and capture new customers, which, in turn, drives innovation, fosters creativity, and develops adaptability. Ensuring competitiveness through effective business strategies requires leaders to create an environment where multiple voices will be heard.
Research by Sylvia Hewitt, Melinda Marshall and Laura Sherbin (HBR, How Diversity Can Drive Innovation, 2013) found that “leaders who give diverse voices equal airtime are nearly twice as likely as others to unleash value-driving insights, and employees in a “speak up” culture are 3.5 times as likely to contribute their full innovative potential.”
While compulsory “diversity training” is in effect in many companies and recruiters are working overtime to find diverse talent to hire, many companies struggle to create inclusive work environments. Since everybody is affected by bias, controlling and outlawing it doesn’t work. Instead, organizations need to be designed in such ways that encourage behaviors that exhibit inclusiveness. When people feel included and engaged, they’re also more productive.
The most effective tactic to increase the sense of cultural inclusiveness is not to marginalize it but to have leaders actively involved in the programs designed for more D&I (diversity and inclusiveness.) For example, when managers participate in college recruitment programs, determined that they’ll come back with recruits who are underrepresented in the company, they’ll become more invested in the success of recruitment efforts. Or when executives begin mentoring mid-level managers of diverse backgrounds, significant gains can be seen in the company’s inclusive practices.
Self-managing teams, which allow people in different roles and functions to work side-by-side on projects as equals, have proven to be effective in lessening bias. Also, cross-training boosts positivity—and therefore productivity—amongst employees. In the end, in order for the D&I efforts to work, there needs to be an acknowledged value in behaving in inclusive ways.
In sum, the winners of the innovation game are those companies who focus on relationships:
- Relationship with the customer: to deeply know the customer and the market trends
- Relationship with ideas: to create an environment where experimentation is the way
- Relationship with people: to make sure people feel heard, seen, respected, included and appreciated for their contributions at all levels and in all directions
Article first posted as: WTIA Blog posted July 15 2016