Creating a Culture of Innovation, Q&A with Solve Magazine

Solve: For companies that want to develop their innovation capabilities, where should they start?

Henry: Innovation starts and ends with the right people and the right mindsets across all levels of an organization.

Companies would never hire a CFO who didn’t have finance skills, but they’ll name a chief innovation officer, often someone from within the organization, who has neither the skills nor the mindset for innovation.

Don’t be afraid to hire innovators from outside your industry. Someone with an outsider perspective can see things in fresh ways, questioning the orthodoxies that exist in all organizations and industries, the “way things are done around here”.

When building innovation teams, you will want to hire user researchers who strive to understand the unmet needs of your customers, not the market potential for your offering. You’ll also want designers who help you visualize a process in a compelling way, or who can create objects or mock up experiences that your users can interact with. Broadly speaking, the core of an effective innovation team usually includes people skilled in design thinking and experimentation.

Solve: How common are these kinds of skills?

Henry: Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have expected to find these kinds of skills outside specialist design and innovation shops like Doblin and IDEO. Nowadays, they are in high demand among industry leaders like P&G, digital transformation specialists like Salesforce, as well as consultancies like McKinsey.

For many organizations, hiring innovation specialists may be simply not possible. Fortunately, there’s a growing number of classes and other resources available online to help people develop the skills and mindsets. Among the best are from design schools such as the Institute of Design [] and the Stanford []. LinkedIn Groups about design thinking are also valuable sources of relevant information.

Solve: That sounds like a lot of people who need to be hired or trained

Henry: Actually, you only need a very few of these people, even in the largest organization, to shift the needle. But everyone in a company can play an important role in fostering a culture of innovation by contributing their ideas to help solve high priority challenges set by leadership. Innovation Management solution providers like BrightIdea and Jive can help manage the process, though don’t delegate the creative part to the technology (not yet anyway!).

Solve: How can companies get the most out of this process?

Henry: First, most companies ask for ideas from their people but then fail to follow up with them when they give them. Every time an employee goes out of his or her way to submit an idea, it should be taken seriously and gratefully acknowledged.

Second, most companies analyze one idea at a time, then either reject it or move it on. The fact is, however, that few ideas stand by themselves. It’s much more useful to analyze all contributions as a whole and see how ideas can be clustered together to form bigger, more systemic concepts. We did this for a large automotive client and found that the 3,500 ideas submitted—once tagged, keyworded and analyzed—could be grouped into six valuable, holistic concepts that the company could act on.

Solve: Lastly, “disruption” seems to be on everyone’s mind. What’s the one thing people should know about it?

Henry: One thing we know for sure is that disruptions are always good for the end user, even if they’re not so good for the incumbents. That means the CEO and other leaders need to find a new way to think about the world. Take off the C-level hat, and put on the “customer” or “user” or even just “person” hat. Lots of organizations talk about how the customer comes first, but not many companies really live up to that.

Think about oneself as an individual customer. What is the problem the customer is trying to solve when they’re using your offering? What would it take, not to make the product better, but to make that problem even easier to solve? What if you could completely get rid of the problem in the first place?

Changing the mindset, seeing the world from a customer’s perspective, enables you to serve the customer in a much more effective and innovative way. That’s where I think the magic is.