The ‘I’ in innovation

For innovation to take root, companies and their CEOs need to create a culture of experimentation


Innovation is not always about new ideas but rather ideas that add value.
Innovation is not always about new ideas but rather ideas that add value.

There is a reason that innovation begins with the letter “I”, yet when we think about innovation, we get stuck in discussing policies and practices rather than tapping into the human potential that ultimately drives it all. We keep asking people to think outside the box rather than getting rid of the box altogether. Organizations want employees to be innovative in their thinking and implementation of ideas, yet at the first sign of stress that comes with innovation, they recede into the mediocrity of known practices.

We often talk about wanting innovation with very little discussion around what it would take to get us to that innovative space where ideas can flow and true innovation can unfold. This month, #ihrchat hosted Stephen Shapiro (@stephenshapiro), strategy and innovation expert and author of Best Practices Are Stupid: 40 Ways To Out-Innovate The Competition. Rita G. McGrath (@rgmcgrath), a professor at Columbia Business School, US, and the author of The End Of Competitive Advantage: How To Keep Your Strategy Moving As Fast As Your Business, also participated in the chat. The topic was “Innovation: The people dimension”.

Innovation is about change. If the pace of change outside the organization is higher than the pace of change inside it, then survival is at stake, according to Shapiro. Innovation should be distinguished from creativity. While you can be creative without innovation, you can never be innovative without creativity. Innovation is not always about new ideas but rather ideas that add value. Often it is assumed that idea generation is the key, but without incubation, acceleration and execution, idea generation is useless, said McGrath.

All firms, of course, claim to want innovation and, on paper, talk about being on the cutting edge of things. But most do not recognize that the cutting edge is also the bleeding edge. Companies don’t realize that they have to be prepared to make sacrifices to sustain that cutting edge.

The path of innovation is not for the faint-hearted. Shapiro said one has to create a culture of experimentation within the firm for innovation to take root. It is all about intelligent failure and learning from them, said McGrath. One should also innovate only in areas where he/she can truly differentiate, said Shapiro. Companies often lose this distinction and attempt to innovate in all areas, which is not feasible.

Like most things, a strong leadership sets the tone for a culture of innovation. Mayanka Batra (@touchmay), an organization development professional, said the leaders have to “be the change” if they want to see the change within their organization. Nidhi Sand (@nidhisand), a human resource professional at information technology firm Wipro, noted that innovation thrives in a culture that allows failure and respects diversity of opinion.

The mental make-up of people who innovate also tends to be different. Reena Roy (@Reerinsroy), a social media leader at multinational firm IBM, was of the view that tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty is a key competency for those who wish to innovate. Consequently, giving the innovators in your organization enough room to play with ideas, accepting failure, and giving a chance to recover and thrive is essential.

Measuring innovation is also critical. A rule of thumb might be to see how many people say “no” to an idea, as innovative suggestions almost always rock the boat. Batra noted that wanting results too soon and always calculating returns is a common mistake, as innovative ideas need time to bloom.

Tanvi Gautam is the founder of Global People Tree, a consulting and training firm. #ihrchat is Asia’s first trending Twitter chat for leaders. The next chat will be on 25 March.

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