Unlocking Your Organization’s Innovation Potential

By Frank Wander  |  Posted 09-27-2013
Figures, circle, globe, U.S.

Unlocking Your Organization's Innovation Potential

By Frank Wander

There is a dearth of top-line growth as the economy continues to bear down on traditional corporate America. Years of cost cutting produced short-term financial gains in order to satisfy Wall Street—often at the expense of the talent infrastructure. Today, the single largest loss in America is our waste of human capital. Consequently, companies now yearn for innovation. Short-sighted “staff redesign” initiatives led to the elimination of highly experienced workers with deep institutional knowledge, leaving behind a disengaged workforce with limited experience. As Steve Jobs understood, deep experience underpins creativity:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”

So, what now? Each corporation must take its demoralized, disengaged and inexperienced workforce and unlock both incremental and breakthrough innovation; it must awaken the full potential of both individuals and teams. Nothing is more productive than a small, tightly knit group of high-aptitude professionals with deep institutional knowledge, operating in a culture conducive to creativity. Yes, nothing! Traditional corporations have lost their innovation potential because they now lack the necessary ingredients. 

Fortunately, the damage can be reversed. Your organization does not have to find innovation to be elusive. Creative outcomes are not the result of chance, but of a thoughtfully designed talent infrastructure that delivers the desired results. If you embrace the caring practices outlined in this article, and are sensitive to the roles that talent and culture play, you can position yourself to outcompete. Making innovation an organizational imperative is important, but it is just step one. You must approach this opportunity in a thoughtful, holistic manner to continuously make progress.

Innovation is a product of mind and emotion. It requires deeply experienced, engaged and socially cohesive teams. Workers can be in an innovative state of mind, or they can be mentally disengaged, producing survival level output. It’s up to you and your organization.

To achieve the former, talent must be valued and embraced by management, nurtured so they have the required institutional knowledge, and immersed in an environment where prosocial behavior is both an expectation and the norm. By removing the socially corrosive forces that impair a firm’s cognitive infrastructure, creativity can be unlocked, making large, untapped pools of innovation potential available.

Unfortunately, the leadership practices employed by traditional corporations are toxic to the cognitive and emotional drivers of creative thought. By treating knowledge workers as interchangeable parts, management reveals it is ignorant of the cognitive and emotional underpinnings of innovation. They destroy that which they most crave. Culture is, in fact, a crucible in which the social chemistry of your organization crystallizes into a positive and supportive environment or, in the case of many large organizations, one that is negative and poorly suited to creativity. It is the social environment that drives mood, sentiment, desire and, if designed right, unlocks innovation.

In addition, innovation comes in different flavors. Everyone immediately thinks “breakthrough,” but incremental innovation is equally necessary. The breakthroughs create new streams of revenue, and sustain you over the long term, while incremental innovation supports you by improving the attractiveness and market share of existing products and services. Both are needed to remain healthy. Focusing on the breakthroughs by anointing a special group sends a clear message to everyone else: “Innovation is not your job.” Why leave pools of talent untapped? An inclusive design is better.

Unlocking Your Organization's Innovation Potential

Therefore, innovation is an outcome—a byproduct of the culture you build and the talent you nurture. Here is a list of 15 design fundamentals that will help you unlock your organization’s collective creativity and innovation:

·         Humans are creative by nature. Just watch a group of children and this becomes immediately obvious. Creativity is an abundant tool, even if it lies dormant in your organization. As Abraham Maslow said, “But why in God's name isn't everyone creative? Where was the human potential lost? How was it crippled? … We have got to abandon that sense of amazement in the face of creativity, as if it were a miracle that anybody created anything.”

·         That said, extraordinary creativity is a gift, so hiring some talent with a creative and innovative track record should be one of your goals. They can work on breakthrough innovation and strategy, or be seeded in teams that need a boost.

·         Make innovation everyone’s job. If you have a breakthrough innovation and strategy team, don’t treat them special. It’s just one of many roles the company has to fill to be successful. Everyone must be embraced to be engaged. As Steve Jobs said, “Innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem. It’s ad hoc meetings of six people called by someone who thinks he has figured out the coolest new thing ever and who wants to know what other people think of his idea.” A creative mind is just too valuable to waste.

·         Mood and social climate are foundational. That’s because an innovative state of mind is a byproduct of your environment. Research has shown that an upbeat, positive environment helps the creative juices flow. It has also been proven that humor and fun are great aids to creativity, and thus innovation, so encourage people to have fun. As Albert Einstein said, “In my experience, the best creative work is never done when one is unhappy.” You will get more creativity and a lot more productivity, too.

·         Everyone knows we have an employee disengagement crisis. Care about your workers and make sure they know you have their back. How could anyone be creative when they are focused on survival?

·         Create an organizational design that tears down the walls that separate people. Mix business and IT talent together. Melding teams with different points of view and thinking styles, a la Myers-Briggs, will unleash creative abrasion, a well documented method of stimulating group creativity.

·         Offshoring is a tool, and like all tools it must be used correctly. This model is the exact opposite of what is required for innovation. Large teams of cheap, inexperienced resources telegraph a clear message: people don’t count. Please read my last CIO Insight article, “Offshoring: Pathway to a Competitive Disadvantage,” to understand how vital your decisions are in this area.

·         Stress and fear cause individuals to engage in protective behaviors in order to survive. This destroys innovation and creativity because higher-order cognitive processes are cut off when the limbic system, our threat sensor, is stimulated.

·         Provide an environment that offers think time. Albert Einstein took long walks so that he had time alone to think and refine his theories. When you read about how breakthroughs happened, examples of think time appear consistently. It is a design decision you need to make.

Unlocking Your Organization’s Innovation Potential

·         Humans have abundant enthusiasm and creative energy when they are doing what they love. Let people have a say in their next assignment. Don’t let managers hang on to talent like they are prisoners.

·         Nurture deep and intimate institutional experience amongst your staff. This drives breakthroughs because it provides a large number of threads of knowledge which can be woven together to unlock innovation. Conversely, superficial institutional experience is like a threadbare fabric that is most likely to fail.

·         If you are a leader, be a great audience. Encourage people to be creative, reward them and openly praise their success.

·         Build an open environment, where ideas are valued, not dismissed. As Einstein said, "The important thing is to not stop questioning." If you don’t have a culture where people are comfortable to speak up, the important questions will never be asked. 

·         Social milieu drives creativity. Great explosions of creativity throughout history have come in clusters, so people clearly feed on the knowledge and passion of others. The more creative your teams, the greater the likelihood it will be expressed.

·         Build a blame-free culture. Innovation is often about trying and failing. If failure becomes blame, then you have an innovation short-circuit.

Lastly, don’t try to quantify the value of each driver. Build the right culture, embrace your talent and innovation will come. I truly believe we are entering a time where leaders will become the servants, and productivity will flow like a wellspring.

About the Author

Frank Wander, a former CIO, is founder and CEO of the IT Excellence Institute, and author of Transforming IT Culture, How to Use Social Intelligence, Human Factors and Collaboration to Create an IT Department That Outperforms (Wily, 2013). For his previous CIO Insight article, “Offshoring: Pathway to a Competitive Disadvantage,” click here