ATD Blog

A New Approach to Innovation

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Of all the recent business buzzwords, innovation and disruption rank among the most popular. What you may be surprised to learn is that they also rank among the most widely misunderstood. Indeed, if you were to look up either term's definition, you may be surprised at what you would find—and the resulting implications. 

Case in point: Disruption is simply defined as a disturbance or problem that interrupts current events or throws normal routines into chaos. In essence, when we speak of disruptions, we're actually speaking about novel or unforeseen difficulties. Similarly, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, innovation is simply the introduction of something new, such as an original idea or way to reposition your business. So really, when we talk about innovation, we're just discussing creative and resourceful approaches to productivity or problem solving. In other words, we’re seeking practical ways of dealing with all the disruption that confronts us. 

Innovation isn't always about cutting-edge breakthroughs or game-changing technologies either. In fact, simple shifts in business strategy or outlook can be every bit as powerful as new technology and groundbreaking discoveries. But more importantly, as research shows, innovation can be simply a matter of perspectiveand process of constant reinvention. And organizations of every size and background have the ability to leverage its core principles to succeed more frequently going forward. 

Consider this: Every year, Booz & Company studies hundreds of the world's top innovators—companies like Google, Amazon, and Samsung—to see what gives them a competitive edge. Shockingly, market leaders don’t have more time, more money, or greater resources to throw at problems. Rather, their key source of competitive advantage is proven time and again to be that they simply provide their people with better platforms for brainstorming, sharing, and experimenting with new ideas. In plainer terms, they give their people more chances to speak up, share their insights and take action when new opportunities or challenges present themselves. 

These companies' leading source of innovative new ideas may also surprise you. Time and again, studies show that the key is simply listening to suppliers, vendors, and customers. Again, this is an area where frontline employees are those best poised to spot rising concerns or areas of interest. 

As a result, to stay in tune with changing business environments and continually re-establish competitive advantage, increasingly more market leaders are not only simply investing in ways to operate more productively or cost-effectively, they're investing in platforms and programs for improving teamwork, communications and sustaining innovation. Recognizing that everyday workers are those closest to buyers (and often the most informed audience in any organization), these organizations are looking to leaders at every level. 


They're looking to these change agents to help them stay more attuned to changing markets, make more informed choices, and explore new avenues for driving business growth and value.

For example, at big data leader EMC, business units routinely put pressing strategic problems to employees to solve in the form of innovation contests. Workers can suggest solutions online, get feedback from colleagues, and vote for winning ideas, which are turned into real-world rollouts. Amazingly, many of EMC's most promising new innovations are now coming from when employees worldwide independently team up to bring even ideas that are technically losers to life. 

Meanwhile, at personal finance software maker Intuit, leaders say their only role now is to "remove the speed bumps in experimenters' way." Executives have made it possible for workers to quickly and cost-effectively propose ideas via online collaboration and sharing tools, secure resources for these projects, and quickly run prototypes and pilot programs in real-world environments. Dozens of revenue-generating products and features have resulted. 


At its core, achieving sustainable innovation isn't just about embracing ongoing learning and experimentation. It's about institutionalizing a love of change in your organization. Successful enterprises don't seek to avoid change and disruption. They know that great change will happen, and they prepare themselves to greet it before it arrives. 

Put simply, innovation isn't a one-time activity. It's an ongoing series of learning experiences and course-corrections that help us become more adaptable, more resilient, and more future-proof in the face of the disruptions we confront over time.


About the Author

Scott Steinberg is a bestselling expert on leadership and innovation, an award-winning professional speaker, and the author of Make Change Work for You: 10 Ways to Future-Proof Yourself, Fearlessly Innovate, and Succeed Despite Uncertainty. Visit his website at

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