7 Trends for Organizational Innovation and Learning

In the report on 15 Practices of Innovation Leaders for Creating Cultures of Innovation, I identified the most common themes in organizational innovation and learning from my interviews with over 100 innovation leaders at larger organizations. I wanted to identify the key techniques these individuals use within their organizations and share that for others to increase innovation within their own organizations.

But since the collection of the original material, I haven’t stopped interviewing innovation leaders and wanted to share the additional insights I have since collected. The following distills some of the most important trends in innovation to help you and your organization reach the next level of innovation.

Focusing on Building a Culture of Innovation

In a culture of innovation, employees of an organization are not only open to innovation but continuously seek to innovate… in a wide variety of areas within the organization. From creating new products, services, methods or applying new technologies, people in a culture of innovation actively look for ways to add value for their customers, users, colleagues and organization. Innovation is a shared assumption, value and belief and people actually live that value and take action. Building a culture of innovation centers around the idea that, as an organization, you have to do new things, in new ways, for new impact to keep surviving and thriving. Because innovation involves a lot of risk and uncertainty, it takes understanding that it is okay to fail, that not every endeavor is going to have tangible results, and even failure should be considered progress. To help your employees embrace a culture of innovation, provide them with areas within the company or organization that are being targeted specifically for innovation – whether it be a product, organizational hierarchy or way of doing things for them to generate alternative approaches to. Providing a space for people to collaborate on something they’re genuinely passionate about through innovation events can also be an excellent opportunity for building a culture of innovation, not to mention the generation of new ideas.

Cultivating a Mindset for Innovation

Organizations are typically good at executing and repeating, not necessarily changing and starting something new. Not everyone has an interest or inclination to innovate—organizational innovation and learning can be a large challenge within companies. Gallup poll employee engagement research has found that most employees within organizations, on average, are not engaged in their work. Many are looking for another job—they don’t want to be there. With this kind of dynamic at play, there is limited drive to innovate.  It seems to me that larger organizations are beginning to embrace mindsets for innovation as a way to advance towards a culture of innovation. Organizational leaders are aware that not everybody within an organization is going to be as innovative as one other. In this case, your expectations for them to innovate should not be the same as yourself as an innovation leader or for your already qualified and experienced innovation team. Beyond contributing to a culture of innovation, hosting voluntary innovation events, like hackathons, can actually be excellent ways of identifying the individuals within your organization already inclined to innovation. Identifying people who raise their hands, who want to solve problems and take a stab at launching new things and then putting them on a team is the surest way to contribute to an overall culture of innovation within your organization. By engaging these motivated individuals and allowing them to lead innovation initiatives, a company can expose and warm employees throughout the rest of the company up to more innovative approaches.

Innovation Centers

More and more, I’ve noticed innovation leaders reference organizational interest in establishing innovation centers, labs and makerspaces on their own campuses. Innovation Centers and their kin serve two primary purposes. The first is to establish a physical space for the physical tools and fruits of innovation. Companies will oftentimes use an innovation center to showcase their own innovations or new products to employees, investors or even customers. And, as spaces for innovation, innovation centers typically include the latest technologies and tools for employees to use to experiment or iterate on their ideas or see how else they might apply the technologies in their business. This might mean Virtual Reality headsets, prototyping machines or the latest IoT devices, depending on a company’s focus or industry. Secondly, an Innovation Center serves as a space where people can gather and innovation directly happens, meaning it is designed to host brainstorming sessions or innovation events. To accommodate this innovation, organizations typically structure and outfit the space for mobility and collaboration—including electronic displays, whiteboards, whiteboard wall paint as well as movable tables and chairs.

Innovation Events

A structural change is oftentimes required to produce innovation movement within an organization. An email sent out asking employees to be more innovative in their work is easy to ignore. Carving out the time to host an event can be a structural solution by directly engaging employees in innovation for a determined amount of time. An innovation event is a good way to either identify people within an organization interested in contributing to innovation or to engage people unfamiliar with innovation. Hosting a smaller innovation event and noting the employees who raise their hands or volunteer is best used to pull in those already interested in innovation. Larger events are excellent at pushing all employees toward innovation, by educating, inspiring and motivating them. Annual conferences or meetings can be one of the best places to engage your wider workforce.

Innovation Events as Recruiting Tools

The benefit of hosting innovation events outside the organization is not so much procuring the next great idea or invention, but finding and recruiting innovators. This can be done internally with employees or even externally through special events like hackathons or internship programs. By hosting an event with a group of computer science students, a company creates an opportunity to see how the students engage and interact with one another, what kind of ideas they generate and possibly identify potential new hires.

Developing Innovation Leaders

Organizational leaders didn’t necessarily learn how to innovate, lead or facilitate innovation in school or in training at their company. It is something that requires learning and development. The same goes for others in the organization that you’d like to involve in the leadership of innovation. Once you’ve identified the individuals inclined to innovation, coach and mentor them! It may be easier to train and develop someone with little innovation experience but who expresses interest than it is to train someone who has been with the organization the longest, but is resistant to change or fostering the collaboration necessary to innovate. Organizational innovation and learning requires leadership worth developing.

Training Design Thinking Facilitators

With the construction of these innovation centers, there is also an increased demand to use the space for mentorship and training that will lead to new ideas, services or business models. I have noticed larger organizations training employees to be dedicated innovation facilitators, trainers or coaches. Since Design Thinking has become popular within organizations, many have begun training employees specifically to facilitate design sprints or other design thinking events. Meanwhile, an innovation coach, different than a facilitator, is typically someone who meets and works one on one with someone to talk through the next steps of an idea they might have or how to advance a more formulated idea within the organization.

You can find the tools for training your own design thinking facilitators or innovation coaches through some of our online design thinking workshops or by inviting a professional facilitator, like myself, to work with your selected employees. Intuit is known for their culture of design thinking and innovation. This Fast Company Design article, How Intuit Used Design Thinking To Boost Sales By $10M In A Year, is helpful to learn more about what Intuit has done, including providing leadership training to more than 1,500 “Innovation Catalysts” on design thinking.

Big Picture—Starting Small and Scaling From Within

When I first endeavored to document approaches to innovation within large organizations, I hoped to find and share the keys to help anyone within an organization become more innovative. I thought the process should engage everyone and be very democratic. But over the years, I’ve come to embrace a more realistic understanding to innovation within large organizations. Most people may never have been exposed to innovation or have the skill development, the learning, the processes or the mindset to properly approach it. Many employees may not be engaged in their work or spend time thinking about the future of the organization—which is not the kind of person who the organization can count on to engage in innovation. But there are people in the organization who ARE interested in innovation. What I’ve started to see is organizations starting small—taking the handful of people within the organization interested in innovation and  putting them on teams. The people who volunteer are the logical ones to start with. Once this group interested in innovating begins to collaborate, they can scale up by engaging the rest of the organization through innovation events such as hackathons or Shark Tank-style pitch sessions.

Organizational Innovation and Learning

See our article on 15 Practices of Innovation Leaders for Creating Cultures of Innovation for more trends for learning and innovating within organizations. You can email Darin, the article author, at Darin at innovationtraining.org about organizational innovation and learning.

2 Comments

  • Jim Smith

    Reply Reply September 30, 2017

    The common ingredient here is human nature and changing that is difficult if not impossible. The problem with worrying about anything in the Gallup studies is that there’s no baseline. What if all they have done is to identify the historical “normal” for employment. It’s a job, not a life preference. Who decided employees should be anything more than what they are, at work. Sure, employers whish for more, but should they expect more? Gallup is one of the most often quoted studies and yet, no one is asking for any data saying that an employee engagement transformation is possible. It’s estimated that companies worldwide are sspending$2 billion a year on employee engagement, yet no one can say whether there’s been any improvement.
    To the point of this discussion, indeed it is possible to make tremendous employee engagement transformations that result in huge innovation, but you have to be willing to change your approach. Asking for innovation doesn’t work unless the employees are shocked into paying attention by your approach. Here’s an example we’ve used for twenty years. The innovation initiative is sponsored by the CEO. A third party provides the messaging to the employees via a one question five-minute video asking for their help in solving an innovation (no restrictions on the categories) problem. Here’s where everyone gets it wrong. The third party, reporting to the CEO is there to suspend the negative aspects of their culture, politics, and silos. There are no blockers! Ideas are evaluated and move forward based on merit and cannot be stopped except at the CEO level.
    Here’s what’s possible. In ten weeks employees operating in the above environment delivered a $300 million SG&A saving, a $200 million reduction to capital, a $45 million inventory reduction and saved 1800 jobs. The problem with innovation is that there are too many self-interested people who just aren’t interested in change. So, don’t let them get in the way unless they’re willing to take the debate to the CEO.

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