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.

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