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Bright Ideas

In addition to idea generation, sustainable innovation is the science and discipline of aligning innovative thinking and leadership to people capabilities and business goals.


Mon Apr 08 2013


In addition to idea generation, sustainable innovation is the science and discipline of aligning innovative thinking and leadership to people capabilities and business goals.

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If office walls could talk, innovation may be one of the most overused buzzwords in the workplace today. Prior to the economic downturn, innovation drove new business lines across the marketplace. But when turmoil hit and companies slashed budgets to stay afloat, leaders also cut ties with their innovation strategies.


Now that the economy has enjoyed a steady recovery, organizations are resurrecting their focus on innovation in a new workplace—one that is lean, efficient, agile, global, and increasingly focused on the potential of its human capital.

So is innovation the flavor of the day, or here to stay? And what can training and development do to drive innovation? The answers to these questions for your organization may depend on how you define innovation and the approaches you use to build an innovative culture.

Making the case for innovation

Research shows that innovation is top of mind for CEOs across the globe. According to findings from Boston Consulting Group—published in Development Dimensions International's (DDI) 2012 report Creating the Conditions for Sustainable Innovation: The Leadership Imperative—72 percent of CEOs rank innovation as one of their top three strategic priorities, up eight points since 2009. The 2011 Conference Board CEO Challenges report places innovation in the top five challenges for Asia, Europe, and the United States.

Furthermore, organizations that make innovation a strategic priority achieve better business performance: The Boston Consulting Group study Innovation 2010: A Return to Prominence and the Emergence of a New World Order demonstrates that innovative companies experience a 12.4 percent lead in their three-year shareholder returns when compared with their peers.

The benefits of innovation are undisputed. Yet while most leaders preach innovation, often their talk doesn't make its way to their walk. Aiming to institutionalize innovation as a sustainable practice that brings measurable business value, DDI and LUMA Institute, an innovation education firm, surveyed more than 1,000 leader and nonleader U.S. employees from a variety of industries and roles.


The resulting report, Creating the Conditions for Sustainable Innovation, defines innovation as a new solution (product, process, or business model) that drives differentiation and measurable business value. It also identifies four key behaviors of innovative leaders: They inspire curiosity, challenge current perspectives, create freedom, and drive execution discipline.

Although many leaders believe they exhibit such innovative characteristics, employee perceptions of their supervisors are much less favorable. The report uncovers an approximately 30 percent disparity between the extent to which employers think they display these qualities and how frequently employees think leaders do.

Rich Wellins, senior vice president at DDI, explains that for those companies with a high commitment to innovation, the gap between leaders' and employees' perceptions disappears, and reports of innovative behaviors from both groups are significantly higher. "When there is a cultural commitment and strategy around innovation, this disparity is nearly nonexistent," Wellins notes.

The report urges organizations to close this employee-leadership gap by working to develop the skills leaders need to drive innovation. Wellins believes that organizations can train leaders to exhibit many of these behaviors such as embracing new ideas and potential failure, asking effective questions, and encouraging idea generation instead of destroying it.

"What leaders say and do every day can inspire curiosity, new ideas, and collaboration—or destroy them," he says.


Adds Ellie Hall, executive consultant at DDI: "We believe that innovation is not just an act of putting systems and processes in place to create new things. Innovation is an act of leadership. It comes down to the behaviors leaders are modeling and building in others to shift the organization's culture. The more leaders are creating a culture of innovation, the more people are energized and innovating, creating a living ecosystem that builds on itself."

Creating a culture of innovation

Fostering an innovative culture is a common theme among companies renowned for their innovative practices. Listed on Forbes's 2012 World's Most Innovative Companies ranking, California-based wireless communications firm Qualcomm focuses on developing a culture where employees feel safe to take risks.

"The number one reason people don't innovate is because they're afraid to take a risk and share ideas," says Tamar Elkeles, vice president of learning and organizational development at Qualcomm. "Employees want to see people taking risks and failing and still getting promoted and rewarded even if their ideas are not always successful." Elkeles believes the organization has to focus on learning from its mistakes, and managers must show employees that they support such risk taking.

Gordon Fuller, director of global learning design and development at IBM's Center for Advanced Learning, agrees that sustainable innovation requires a broader focus on organization culture and business strategy. "You can train employees to be innovative, but you also have to create the organizational structure and culture that make that training take root and flourish."

For IBM, this starts with hiring the best and brightest employees from diverse backgrounds. By employing people with skill sets that drive creative design and out-of-the-box thinking, and encouraging continuous collaboration to improve on existing products and services, IBM has seen its learning innovation capabilities soar in such areas as learning analytics, mastery modeling, and social networking analysis.

"Show employees how innovation benefits them, the company, and the clients," Fuller says. "Learning has a role to play in diffusing innovative learning solutions to all parts of the corporation, and a responsibility to coach learners in such a way that the 'aha moments' come more frequently, and people know how to apply them in a business sense."

Empowering the people

The innovation strategies of digital marketing and digital media solutions at Adobe affirm both Qualcomm's emphasis on risk taking and IBM's focus on developing people capabilities. Adobe's human resources department (called "people resources") plays a key role by attracting and selecting the best minds globally, and building managers' capabilities to help encourage, celebrate, and nurture risk taking among employees.

"First we focus on preparing managers to select the best talent and look for individuals with four core values: genuine, innovative, exceptional, and involved," explains Donna Morris, senior vice president of people resources at Adobe. "Then we look to our managers to strengthen the innovation capabilities of individuals on their teams."

To empower leaders toward this goal, Adobe developed a managerial essentials program that builds managers' innovation-driving skills, ensuring they understand the strengths of their employees and can set expectations, give feedback, and encourage development. Additionally, Adobe dismantled its performance review process and in its place instituted the "check in"—a practice that ensures employees know what's expected of them, give and receive regular feedback, and develop their individual strengths.

Developing an innovation mindset

Canada-based innovation consultancy Staples Innovation helps organizations grow by building people's innovative thinking skills. The firm's approach is based on Innovation White Belt Certification, a program originally implemented at Staples Canada.

According to Brian Coupland, managing partner at Staples Innovation, the first and most critical part of this process is for people to understand what innovation is in the context of their unique organization culture and business goals. Staples Innovation poses the following questions to its clients:

  • What is the definition of innovation?

  • At what level in the organization is innovation going to happen?

  • What resources are available?

  • How are people who don't have the necessary innovation skills today going to get them?

  • Who's doing the training, and how's it going to take place?

Claude Legrand, managing partner at Staples Innovation, agrees that companies first must understand why innovation is important for their specific business goals, and then identify the barriers to achieving such innovation.

The firm's model trains people to approach problem solving and innovation by shedding old ways of thinking and developing a new mindset. In Does Our Brain Operating System Need an Upgrade? Legrand explains that people primarily think analytically, a system taught in school and reinforced in most workplaces. Although analytical thinking was effective in the industrial economy when it was important for workers to focus on efficiency and results, it is not a mindset that prospers in today's knowledge economy.

Instead, Legrand proposes the adoption of a new brain operating system, one that allows people to address new situations when yesterday's answers are irrelevant or failing, and root problems are unclear. This mindset is called innovative thinking.

"Innovative thinking is the way to solve complex problems," he says. "The key to training for innovative thinking is to teach people how to define the problem while respecting its ambiguity." In a typical two-day innovative thinking training program, participants spend one day defining the problem, half of the second day generating ideas, and the remaining half-day implementing a solution.

Additionally, Staples Innovation emphasizes the role of leader support in innovation training. "We never train teams without their supervisor because we challenge the definition of the problem," says Legrand. "If a manager doesn't understand the method's logic, she can't reinforce the right behaviors, and if you don't reinforce the right behaviors, then innovation can't stick."

Coupland seconds this imperative for leadership support: "The greater the support, the better you will flourish. You must understand on a leadership level who owns innovation, and then develop a plan. In my experience, a lot of companies struggle because they don't have the necessary support or visibility at this level."

A charge for training and development

Like any skills gap that can keep an organization from reaching its full human capital and business potential, a lack of innovation impedes an organization from thriving. "There are many statistics to support how important businesses think innovation is to their future in contrast to how effectively they innovate," Coupland says. "We call this the innovation gap. What training and development strategies do you have in place to help close that gap? What do you plan to do to help people get the necessary skills?"

Behavior change is a clear theme, with the need to develop employers to effectively lead innovation and train employees to think and act innovatively. And a focus on organization culture transformation as a foundation is fundamental. Finally, aligning learning and development with business goals is critical to building and sustaining innovation.

Morris from Adobe warns organizations against taking a siloed approach. "Innovation is a key competency required of all people organizations. It starts with building capability to attract the best people, developing those people, and then supporting the business's learning goals. Learning and development cannot build such capability without connecting to the other systems and functions in the organization." 

UPS: 107 Years of Innovation

With a history that spans more than a century, UPS has learned to constantly innovate, expanding its reach throughout the world and adding new business lines, such as logistics and warehousing, along the way. "Everything we offer today speaks to 107 years of constant innovation—continuously transforming our business to meet market demands and adapt to new technologies," says Anne Schwartz, vice president of leadership and talent development.

Fast Company ranked UPS number 38 on its list of The World's 50 Most Innovative Companies for "solving customers' number one pet peeve" with its latest innovation, UPS My Choice. UPS created this free service in response to customer feedback.

People wanted the flexibility to change their shipping delivery location and schedule as needed. Now customers can log in to the UPS website and track packages to reroute, reschedule, or authorize a shipment release for delivery. They even receive an email, voice, or text message the day before a delivery that notifies them of the package’s shipment details.

"We are always asking, 'How do we continue to exceed customer expectations?'" says Schwartz. "When companies are internally focused, they lose that perspective and become irrelevant. This question guides innovation through changing times."

Analytical Thinking Versus Innovative Thinking

Analytical Thinking

Innovative Thinking 

Focus on the right answer

Focus on the right question

Eliminate uncertainties

Embrace uncertainties

Jump to conclusions

Understand all facets before proceeding

One best way

No presumed best way

Make quick assumptions

Question all assumptions

Black and white perspective

Various shades of gray

The boss knows best

Find the right people who have parts of the question and of the answer

Faster is better

Maximize the time available

Change is a problem

Change is a welcomed fact of life

Risk and failures are bad

Risk and failures are part of life in the knowledge economy

Do it now

Do it right

Linear and sequential

Linear and nonlinear

One or the other

One and the other

To-do list

Priorities list

Just do it

Let’s think

Source: Does Our Brain Operating System Need an Upgrade? by Claude Legrand, Managing Partner, Staples Innovation (available at www.staplesinnovation.ca)

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