Does your business have a culture in which innovation thrives? Are people challenging the status quo and being encouraged by leaders to take risks in pursuit of innovation? Or is the opposite true, whereby people don’t take time to listen to new ideas and suggestions?
Building a culture of innovation is hard work. However, the scientific research into how to create an organization where innovation flourishes is both plentiful and precise. The following are several strategies you can adopt to help find, retain and grow creative people and build an environment where they thrive.
Recruit for Innovation
A company’s innovation strategy starts with who they employ. There are several methods top creative companies use to ensure they bring the best people into the organization to drive innovation.
- Don’t recruit people just like yourself
Creating top performing innovative teams needs to start in the recruitment process. Most recruitment processes consist of barely more than a couple of interviews. Often these processes are structured to find clones of ourselves, and thus, discourage diversity. Lauren Rivera from the Kellogg School of Management, conducted research into 120 hiring managers and the factors influencing their hiring decisions. She found that rather than hiring the most qualified applicants for the job, hiring managers were significantly more likely to recruit people they thought they could be friends with—people like them.
Avoid the temptation to be blinded by similarities when selecting new hires – instead, ask yourself whether you are bringing someone into the team who is different from the other members, especially in terms of their skill set, knowledge and experiences.
- Find T-shaped people
Traditional recruiters tend to look for “I-shaped” people – those who have a depth of experience in one area. However, the most innovative teams are full of “T-shaped” people. These are people who have a good amount of depth in one area, but complement that with a breadth of experience, skills and knowledge in several other areas too. T-shaped people tend to be more well-rounded and can often bring more robust debate to projects as they have a greater variety of skills and viewpoints to draw from.
When recruiting, seek out T-shaped people and try to avoid simply bringing in more I-shaped people to your organization.
- Embrace functional diversity
In a meta-analysis of what drives creativity in teams, Dr Ute Hülsheger, an associate professor of work and organizational psychology at Maastricht University, found that job-relevant diversity was one of the biggest factors - even greater than demographic diversity. A team that demonstrates good job-relevant diversity is typically cross-functional, and has a good spread of different educational backgrounds and expertise.
When recruiting new people to join existing teams, look for functional diversity. Find people who have different functional backgrounds, people who have studied different subjects at university, and people who have learned different skills during their career.
Train for Innovation
Contrary to popular belief, innovation is not an innate skill some of us are born with, and others are not. The skills involved in being a successful innovator are largely learned. There is much scientific research that demonstrates that with the right tools, stimulus and frameworks, every single person with a functioning brain is capable of improving their ability to innovate and think more creatively.
There are three main skill sets that leaders need to help their staff learn and embed. The first skill set is around identifying customer-driven opportunities. This involves helping people understand how to observe and speak to customers in order to identify their biggest problems and frustrations. If we can identify what frustrates customers and create solutions that reduce or eliminate frustrations, innovation efforts will be successful.
The second skill set is around idea generation and creativity. Teaching people how to generate both incremental and breakthrough ideas is important, and a skill set that is relatively simply to teach.
Finally, teaching people the skills to prototype ideas quickly and leanly is important. Rather than jumping straight to implementation, people need to first understand how to prototype their ideas and test them with real customers. Getting feedback from customers will allow your organization to learn quickly and iterate, and ensure that the innovation that eventually gets implemented is one that resonates with customers and truly adds value to their lives.
Create an Innovation Culture
One of the most important factors in creating a culture of innovation is having an environment where risk-taking is encouraged. One of the only certainties about innovation is that if you are doing it properly, failure will be a given at some point in time. Not every idea your organization comes up with will be successful, and most ideas will need significant iteration and refinement before they will delight customers. As such, leaders need to signal to the organization that failure is encouraged, and to see failure as an opportunity to learn what matters most to customers.
The Tata Group is a company that has embraced both innovation and failure. As part of their annual ‘Innovista’ award program, Tata Group created a category that specifically rewards failure. It might sound like an unusual concept, but the ‘Dare To Try’ awards are given to innovations that produced incredibly rich and useful learnings, despite not succeeding at a commercial level. The awards have been very effective in signaling to the organization that risk-taking is acceptable and that in fact, failure will be rewarded.
So rather than just let innovation happen by chance, be deliberate about who you recruit, how you train people and how you create an innovation culture.
Dr Amantha Imber is the founder of Inventium (www.inventium.com.au), an innovation consultancy that only uses tools that have been scientifically proven to work. Her latest book, The Innovation Formula, tackles the topic of how organizations can create a culture where innovation thrives.