How Leaders Can Inspire Everyday Innovation
The World Demands Innovation
The ability to generate and sustain innovation has become an imperative for organizations as markets grow more global, open, and competitive, and customer expectations grow more diverse and demanding. In order for our world and our organizations to prosper, it is essential that everyone learn the skills to become active contributors toward innovation. Organizations must commit to innovation as a key strategy for success and expect and support everyone in the organization to be an active contributor toward innovation. Our world demands a new perspective – a new brand – of innovation, one that is broader and more inclusive. Our world demands Everyday Innovation.
What is Innovation?
Before defining Everyday Innovation, it will be helpful to define the term innovation. Put simply, innovation is defined as:
A new idea applied for positive impact.
For example, the idea to store thousands of songs on a small device that can be held in the palm of your hand is a great idea. It didn’t become an innovation until the development the iPod (and other MP3 players) and after people were deriving benefit from it.
Everyday Innovation occurs when everyone in an organization is actively and continuously supported, encouraged, and contributing to the process of innovation leading to new ideas of all types, from small to transformational, to improve our organizations and our world.
The term “Every” has three meanings in the context Everyday Innovation: (1) Involving everyone in innovation; (2) Having an innovation mindset at every moment; and (3) Valuing every type of innovation, from small to transformational (Figure 1).
Can Innovation be “Learned?”
Innovation, like any skill, can be learned and developed with practice and proper organizational support. One of the essential “People” capabilities for Everyday Innovation is the skill of viewing the world and our work through an “innovator’s lens.” The ARC Model (acknowledge, reframe and connect) represents this lens, which is continuously focused on creating desired outcomes.
Innovators acknowledge current circumstances, reframe those current circumstances within the context of a desired outcome and then connect to people, data, experiences, and analogies to generate new ideas to bring that desired outcome to life.
Contrary to the myth that innovators have their head in the clouds, innovators are actually very skillful at understanding what’s happening around them, their organization, and the world. They understand what’s going well and what’s not going well (problems and challenges). They are also skillful at detecting trends, customer needs, demographic changes, and positive unanticipated surprises that can potentially lead to innovation opportunities. However, once innovators understand and acknowledge current circumstances, they pivot to the reframe.
Above all, innovators seek to create. And in order to create they must view their current circumstances, including any problems and challenges, within a broader context—the context of a desired outcome. In doing so, innovators are not “tethered” to problems and their view greatly broadens and enhances the potential and possibility of outcomes. Their view also leads to a much broader and more powerful set of questions. For example, innovators ask: “If the problem didn’t exist, what would we want to achieve or create in its place?”
In order to generate new ideas and to bring their desired outcomes to life, innovators seek to connect to a diversity of people, data, experiences, and analogies. When connecting, diversity is power, so innovators make a conscious effort to get beyond habit and beyond the obvious to make connections to other disciplines, cultures, backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences (see Figure 2).
Those that become skilled at "ARCing" can acknowledge, reframe, and connect almost simultaneously. With practice and experience, ARCing becomes instinctive and natural, and its power and potential infinite.
What is a Leader’s Role in Innovation?
So what role does a Leader play in the innovation process? The short answer is—a big one. Unfortunately, research continues to highlight Leadership as a top “barrier” to innovation (Deloitte University Press, 2014). However, this actually represents a great opportunity to anyone in a leadership role who is genuinely interested in building their team’s innovation capabilities. So as a leader, what can you do to support, foster, and inspire Everyday Innovation?
- Begin within your sphere of influence, that is, where you have the most immediate influence and impact.
- Leverage what currently exists. Before investing in expensive new solutions, use what your organization currently has to offer. Most organizations have existing processes, tools, and resources that can be used to support innovation.
- Fully engage your team in the innovation process. As indicated in Figure 1, a wide-diversity of perspectives will create better ideas.
- Begin by focusing on 1 or 2 key innovation opportunity areas or “domains.” Rather than asking people to randomly generate a large quantity of new ideas across a wide-spectrum of topics, focus on specific domains where you need new ideas and innovations. Targeting specific domains brings focus to idea-generation in a way that leads to a greater return on resources and effort. Examples might include, "new solution selling techniques," "ways to attract young professionals to our team," or "caregiving practices for Alzheimer’s patients."
- Build organizational capabilities to support innovation. Focus and align efforts across four categories of organizational capabilities: (1) Infrastructure, (2) Talent Management, (3) Culture, and (4) Leadership (later in this article, we examine opportunities within each of these four categories).
- Build the innovation skills of people as well as their knowledge around the targeted domains.
- Provide solutions to learn how to ARC.
- Enroll your team in a skill-building ARC Workshop.
- Give your team multiple opportunities to practice ARCing during regularly scheduled meetings. For example, do a “reframing” practice activity where problems are presented and reframed into desired outcomes.
- Provide training on the use of connecting tools (e.g., collaboration tools, social media
- Provide solutions to learn domain knowledge. As part of this, apply the connecting processes and tools of your Infrastructure. For example, to build knowledge in the domain, “new solution selling techniques” your team could:
- Participate in a Solutions Selling community of practice to have discussions with peers and experts.
- Access an eLibrary to find books and articles to learn more about Solution Selling.
- Visit a regional sales office to observe, interview, or even work with sales representatives.
- Engage in facilitated associational connecting sessions to identify other disciplines or processes that could provide learning insights around Solution Selling.
- Provide solutions to learn how to ARC.
Why Are Organizational Capabilities So Important?
We often receive the question, “What are the greatest challenges for Leaders when it comes to innovation?” Our response is that one of the greatest challenges Leaders face is often one they share with those they lead. They are part of an organization that is designed and hierarchically managed on legacy principles that do not support innovation, often stifle it, or even punish it (intentionally or unintentionally). But good Leaders, and innovators, don’t play the role of victim. Each one of us shares responsibility to be part of the solution and to do everything we can to contribute toward building organizational capabilities that support, foster, and inspire innovation. So let’s highlight some examples of what Leaders can do, within their “sphere of influence,” to build organizational capabilities that support innovation.
Infrastructure (Processes and Tools)
- Use the Everyday Connections Quadrant (Figure 2) as a guide for identifying processes and tools to support your team as they connect around targeted domains. For example:
- Support connecting to people by identifying collaboration tools so your team can engage in discussions with peers and experts on domain topics. This could include communities of practice and social media (e.g., professional networking sites offer the ability to form or join virtual discussion groups).
- Support connecting to data by identifying knowledge-bases or eLibraries for accessing articles and research related to domain topics. Your organization may already offer similar tools but again, many websites, professional associations, and social media provide connections to valuable information.
- Foster connecting to experiences by developing a process that allows your team to engage in “experiential” activities such as training, observations, interviews, or temporary work assignments.
- For connecting to analogies, create “associational connecting” sessions. During these sessions people can work to identify other disciplines or jobs that may first appear unrelated to the targeted domain but can provide valuable insights and ideas.
- As your team is ARCing around targeted domains, many new ideas will be generated. Therefore, you will need to develop an Ideas Management process to capture, assess, prioritize, and select the best ideas. Don’t overcomplicate the process. Just make sure to engage your team in its development so they fully understand the process and criteria by which ideas will be assessed and selected.
- Create a process to measure, monitor, and report on innovation efforts and outputs. Your organization may already have a scorecard, dashboard, or template you can modify. With your team’s input, determine what will be included on your scorecard (e.g., number of new ideas generated, where they’re coming from, status of innovation efforts, costs, benefits, and impact).
- Develop a process for conducting “after-action reviews” as a way to embed continuous learning into innovation projects and efforts.
- Modify your current budgeting process to include funding for innovation projects and efforts.
- Use your current performance management system to establish innovation performance goals.
- Rewrite job descriptions to include innovation skills, roles, and responsibilities.
- Ensure your hiring process includes selection criteria that assesses innovation interest and capability.
- Reward and recognize people engaged in and inspiring innovation efforts.
- Include innovation skill-building experiences into your team’s development plans.
- Your goal is to make Everyday Innovation the “new norm.” Although culture is partly an outcome of building the other organizational capabilities, one of the most effective ways to impact culture is to continuously communicate to your team the importance (the “Why”), of innovation efforts, as well as progress and status.
- Publicize rewards and recognition given to teams and people for their contribution to innovation efforts.
- Build innovation topics, discussions, and updates into the agenda of standing meetings.
- Create physical space where people can share stories, collaborate and exchange ideas and feedback.
- Create a website and blog that provides “real-time” updates on innovation efforts and projects and inspires team members to share about their innovation efforts and learning.
- Obviously, leadership is a sweet spot for opportunities to support, foster, and inspire Everyday Innovation. Serve as a role model for Everyday Innovation: Ask good questions, become an active listener, be curious, share personal stories of mistakes, failure, and learning. Inspire others to role model the same.
- Encourage collaboration with others inside and outside the organization.
- Continuously reward and recognize innovation efforts even if failure occurs.
- View mistakes and failure as essential to the innovation process.
- Encourage and expect your team to provide candid feedback and opinions in a safe environment (reduce fear on your team).
- Embrace ambiguity as a normal part of the innovation process.
- Provide on-going coaching and feedback to your team on their innovation efforts.
The role of a leader in the process of innovation cannot be overstated. As a leader, you can make or break your organization’s ability to support and sustain innovation. So start today, use what you have to work with, and take these steps toward leading and inspiring Everyday Innovation. Not only will it help you build the people and organizational capabilities that will lead to the continuous generation of new ideas and innovation where you need them most, it will lead to a positive impact on productivity and will attract, engage, and retain the type of talent most needed today and tomorrow.