HR Strategy

Building a Culture of Innovation Requires a Commitment from the Top

Talent managers have the challenging task of sponsoring a driven, innovative culture
— By Paul Lachhu

A culture of innovation is now the de facto goal for corporations and many minority and women-owned businesses (MWBEs) that want to take things to the next level. Investment is not enough and talent alone will not do it. Instead, organizations have to be ready to come up with fresh, new solutions to the problems of today and tomorrow.

It’s no small mandate. The pressure to find innovative solutions is driven by a desire for competitive differentiation that grows more intense as globalization continues. To be a success, your firm has to stand out in the marketplace. It is imperative to be able to deliver what no one else can or what no one else has thought of yet. To do this, you have to understand the modern innovation challenge, grasp how to train leaders to be innovators within your firm, and be able to leverage design thinking, peer feedback, and other key innovation tools.

The Modern Innovation Challenge
The modern innovation challenge is to be disruptive. While this sounds like a classroom management issue, disruptive innovation is what drives industry change and growth. Think about how MP3s changed the music business, or how Wi-Fi changed computing. These are small but critical innovations that transformed their respective business climates, and this is exactly what the modern age wants from your business.

Talent management executives need to be able to deliver on this challenge while successfully balancing risk and reward. In many cases, this means looking beyond what’s been done before to inspire talent or train team members. Talent managers need to be able to alter their thinking to lead employees toward an innovative future.

At the same time, there needs to be a balance between the risk and the potential reward. Products have to be tested before they are launched, and employee empowerment must be tempered by liability concerns. However, by refusing to allow a culture of fear to thrive within their organizations, talent managers can do much to avoid the negative innovation effects of a workforce that doesn’t believe in its own ability to achieve.

It is not always an easy journey. Many talent managers are uncomfortable with roles that make them ‘keepers of the culture’ or that elevate them to positions of creative leadership they’re not confident they deserve. However, talent managers themselves do not need to be creative thought leaders. They simply need to enable a mindset where creative, innovative team members can thrive.

Training Leaders to Be Innovators
Building that mindset doesn’t happen overnight, but it is possible to do. Talent mangers have to give the right signals and set the right standards. In many cases, one strong example is worth more than a thousand hours of training sessions, so MWBEs looking to shortcut their journey toward being a more innovative organization should seek good examples.

One example often turned to is Apple. The innovation culture at the company is legendary, but it didn’t appear by magic. Instead, it was carefully built and shaped by Steve Jobs over the course of decades. He counseled his staff to:

• Be hungry for change and success instead of working to maintain the status quo

• Have the courage to pursue new directions, regardless of what the competition was doing

• Accept nothing less than excellence – a ‘good-enough’ culture wasn’t going to cut it

• Keep at it, since half of what separates successful entrepreneurs from failures is perseverance

These tenets weren’t rooted in fancy training courses or seminars. Instead, Jobs worked to establish these values as central to Apple’s identity, building everything else around the core values. This trained his leaders and each team member to do their part in creating a culture of innovation.

Leveraging Design Thinking and Peer Feedback
With the right foundation mindset under development, talent managers also have to ensure that staff are leveraging useful tools to help drive innovation from concept to completion. Two extremely useful frameworks are design thinking and peer feedback systems.

Design thinking is a methodology for problem-solving. It is available to any business or profession as it is not limited to one subject area. Instead, it offers the tools to evaluate any situation and push it toward an innovative solution. The protocol for design thinking has four steps:

1. Define the problem.

Your team will waste time and resources pursuing inappropriate innovations if the problem is not well-defined at the start. If necessary, Fast Company author Mark Dziersk recommends asking “Why? Why? Why?” until the final answer is succinct and tight.

2. Create and consider many options.

Multiple perspectives and input from mulitple work groups will be key here. This helps strip away preconceived notions and identify bias in thinking when brainstorming opportunities or new directions to pursue.

3. Refine chosen solutions/directions.

Once a new idea has been identified, it needs to be refined to strengthen it before it goes to market. Top ideas or solutions should be partially built out to give a clearer picture of how their innovation would look in the real world.

4. Pick the best option and execute.

Using this framework helps team members get comfortable bringing forward new ideas. It also trains the organization to use a process of consideration and refinement to deliver optimal final solutions. This can take some of the pressure to “do magic” out of creating a culture of innovation, since workers can look at it as just another process to follow.

Peer feedback session can be used as a follow up to design thinking sessions. This innovation building tool takes selected ideas out to a peer group for discussion and feedback. The process helps identify solutions built in a bubble that just won’t make it, or solutions built with a faulty mindset or obvious bias. Peer feedback can also be used to guide the construction of action plans for following through on innovative ideas. Original innovators are often too close to be objective about what needs done, while peers can help create realistic plans for the best new ideas.

The mandate to be innovative is a challenge for talent management executives and their organizations, but it doesn’t have to seem like an impossible task. While the modern innovation challenge is increasing, there are proven mindsets for future innovation leaders and proven methods for getting teams to refine their best ideas. Taking advantage of these tools provides a process frame that can be used as the foundation of an evolving and innovative culture.