CEOs often talk about the strategic imperative for their organizations to boost innovation, myself included. They imagine the internal meetings in front of their general employee populations where they talk about becoming more innovative. What happens? How is that message received?
Well, they lose the majority of the audience — first, most people think that innovation is the job of R&D, so they don’t have to worry about it. Second, even if they think the CEO is talking to them, most people are not confident they are innovative enough to contribute to this priority.
I would suggest that less than 10 percent of employees are embracing the call to boost innovation. How can CEOs unite employees in a rallying vision to unlock the true innovation power of an organization?
For the first 22 years of my career, I was in R&D. The last 16 have been in general management. I have been ruminating on this question of innovation for most of my professional life. About 10 years ago, I finally had a chance to put some ideas into practice — to see if we could make a large, global organization more innovative.
The business I was leading had approximately 4,500 people operating in more than 20 countries. We had a nice starting point in that the basis of the business was a value-added manufacturing company working in technical industries — so new product development and the need to provide new solutions to our customers was imperative (in fact, 24 percent of company sales came from products introduced in the past five years). But our growth was not as robust as I wanted, so my organizational goal was to dramatically boost internal growth through innovation.
Turns out, I was one of those leaders — the kind who talks about growth and innovation but inspires limited progress at best. It was frustrating and I started to question why this was the case. After speaking candidly with employees, I found that very few people in the organization felt they were connected to innovation.
Let me jump to the end of the story — six years later we had nearly doubled the sales of the business and the sales of new products less than five years old were more than 50 percent (of total revenue). What was the cause behind the shift? Collectively, we had figured out how to embrace Enterprise Innovation. It was a six-year journey, so here’s the condensed version.
Think enterprise and think everyone.
Our journey to embracing innovation was charted by a few key beliefs:
• Innovation is not R&D’s job – it is everyone’s job.
• Everyone is creative and we can increase people’s creative confidence through training.
• Diversity of thought is a significant part of innovation.
• A journey to innovation begins by being more customer-centric.
• Innovation isn’t magic, but it can be learned and taught.
• If you invite people to be creative, you should also teach listening skills so that they will be heard.
• If you multiply the number of people taking the innovation journey, good things will happen.
• Innovation is not about hitting home runs — singles and doubles are OK, too.
These beliefs grew from a book titled “Innovation to the Core” written by Peter Skarzynski and Rowan Gibson that helped us create a common vocabulary when we spoke about innovation.
Eliminate unconscious bias to develop a comprehensive roadmap.
After redefining how we viewed innovation, we knew that engaging the entire organization couldn’t be a top-down initiative — we had to make sure that all levels of the organization were involved. We created an Innovation Council, and instead of naming people to the Council, we invited everyone in the business to submit an application by sharing the reasons why they wanted to be part of the Council and the attributes that they would bring.
Without knowing applicants’ identities and instead focusing only on their passion for the task at hand, we selected 15 people from nearly 100 submissions. The final list surprised us, but resulted in a group of diverse individuals from across the organization who we could engage to help us formulate the process, act as a sounding board for change management issues, and be advocates within their individual teams.
Redefine how you train employees.
Once we began thinking about innovation differently and assembled an inclusive task force to guide change within our company, we hired a passionate person to be our Innovation Process Leader. She had never done this job before – she was a global general manager looking for a new adventure – but she shared a passion for boosting the innovation capacity of an organization. Her job was to work with the Council and the business leaders to create a training program and roll it out across the worldwide business. With her team of just three people, we trained more than 3,000 employees in two years by focusing on key concepts within five main organizational levels:
1. Individuals: Instill creative confidence by encouraging people to release their creativity.
2. Teams: Promote listening skills by working with teams and team leaders to make sure that people are being heard. We used techniques like The de Bono Group’s Six Thinking Hats.
3. Managers: Remove unconscious bias to promote diversity by working with managers to seek diverse people and opinions.
4. Customers: Take a nontraditional approach to identifying customers’ needs by working on ideation and listening/questioning skills using some of Dan Adams’ New Product Blueprinting approach.
5. Businesses: Work strategically with business units to thoroughly understand their core competencies. We used this work as a lens and filter for ideas — innovate within your competencies and you will be more successful.
The themes of the training are obvious — diversity, encourage, listen, act. What isn’t obvious is the engagement it creates, the fact that everyone is on the journey together, and that innovation can and does occur in every function across your enterprise — so go encourage it.
Read more: Lessons In Disruption From Dean Kamen