What Is The Best Way To Foster Innovation Structurally?

Following my recent post Are you an innovative leader, I got a great question from one of the readers. Carmelle Goldberg.

Her question was:

In your experience, what is the best way to foster innovation in an organization structurally?

She added:

Senior managers are supposed to promote innovation, but they are not trained to do so, and have other crucial responsibilities. Is it fair to put innovation on their plate? What is the role of the external eye mandated specifically for these purposes?

My interpretation of her question was:

Ok Jordi, thanks for your advice, but how can we make it happen when our people is overwhelmed with day to day activities and other “important” priorities?

So in this post I will focus on actions.

I will try and drill down one level into, not just what virtues a leader must nurture in order to be more innovative, but also what processes and tools a company must put in place in order to promote real innovation.

I would like to highlight though, that as the new CEO of Apple said:

There’s no formula to innovation. If there was a formula, a lot of companies would have bought their ability to innovate. – Tim Cook

In the following lines I will summarize some of the best practices that the most innovative enterprises in the world applied in order to improve their innovation formula.

Step # 1. Written and un-written norms:

Define a short and concise employee relationship policy. Forget about hundreds of pages of behaviors, manners, formal protocols, bureaucracy, templates, and forms.

You need one-pager, with few key bullets, making a very clear statement on what the company expects employees to do, to create additional value for their customers. Whatever it takes!

Innovation is the sum of creativity and action, so let´s encourage people to think and act using their creativity, self-judgment, and common-sense.

You MUST trust your people if you want to be innovative.

Inculcating a Culture of innovation goes beyond the “Smart Talk”. You need to set the right norms and show your full confidence in your staff and their ability to address difficult situations with little supervision.

Let´s look at it from a process standpoint, as it will help us understand what changes we need to implement in order to make things happen.

Step # 2. Hiring criteria:

We must establish a clear hiring criteria, focused on candidate´s creativity, self-discipline, and common sense, instead of focusing on whether they have an MBA or they possess the necessary technical skills for the job.

A strong cultural fit, and as a result, a superior people engagement, starts with the implementation of the right recruitment and induction policies.

A strong match between candidate´s and company´s Culture – ethics, values and beliefs – is the most critical item all HR departments and hiring managers should focus on when capturing new talent.

Attitude, leadership potential, collaboration, creativity, self-cultivation, autonomy, etc. should be all key criteria in the candidate screening, interviewing and selection process. Technical skills are much easier to teach and almost every human can learn new technical skills with the right training and sufficient time.

Step # 3. Training and development:

It is fundamental that Culture – values and beliefs – are properly inculcated and frequently refreshed. Not just to new hires, but across all existing business functions and layers, top to bottom.

Training should include humanistic aspects impacting leadership and most importantly, be fully aligned with the company Culture and norms.

The Executives should not just attend the training sessions, but get actively involved in the opening and closing sessions, reinforcing the importance of beliefs and values and showing their firm commitment to this Culture.

Executive compliance with the norms is key to success. Change needs to be visible both in their words and their behaviors.

In parallel you need to train your people in fields such as cross-functional relationship management, working without supervision, dealing with complexity and ambiguity, change management, etc.

Technical skills can be learnt on the fly, it is the values, beliefs and ethics that need to be constantly reiterated, so everyone engages in the Cultural change.

Training does not finish when we walk away from the training room. Executives compliance and application of the learnings on a day to day basis is an instrumental part of Cultural change.

Executives must become the role-model for the rest of the organization. If they do not follow the norms, why should I?

Step # 4. Talent promotion, rewards and retention:

Talent development and promotions should also incorporate an assessment of the candidate´s Cultural fit.

Promoting super-achievers may not always be the best way to develop talent when you try to indoctrinate a Culture of innovation.

Micromanagers can kill innovation very quickly, so we need to understand carefully who should or should not be given a leading chair.

Now, let´s review Carmelle´s next question: What happens when mid-managers and employees have too much on their plates?

It is critical for the leadership team to instill a proper sense of urgency and priorities. Most of the times the “important” things, are not necessarily the things that are truly important.

Assessing the gap between what leaders think is important and what mid-managers and professionals believe is important, can be a very useful exercise to help distribute managers workload more efficiently and avoid overwhelmed and burned employees.

What tends to happen though is that some companies say they want to focus on innovation, without understanding that before they can run, they need to learn how to walk.

Building communication channels, managing interdependencies, solidifying processes and investing in the development and implementation of effective IT tools, becomes compulsory before you can embark on the innovation journey.

# 1. Two-way communication:

The executives MUST express openly what is relevant in terms of the business strategic intent, so people at lower layers in the organization can line up their efforts to their leadership plans.

Mid-management and professionals need to be encouraged to speak up, bringing up to the board whichever issues maybe preventing the achievement of the strategic goals.

# 2. Walking before running:

We need to fix, consolidate and then innovate. In this order.

Assessing and understanding the real business capability before kicking off your strategic plan, becomes of paramount importance.

Sometimes the executive’s perception is distorted, making them overestimate the actual business ability to execute their thoughts.

An open, two-way communication culture would help mid-managers express their concerns regarding, for instance, lack of resource, weak system functionality, and process capability constraints.

Mid-managers are responsible for making the executives understand what may prevent the execution of the strategy.

Her last question was: What is the role of the external consultant in all that?

In my humble opinion, an external consultant is one of the two Key Change Agents. The other Key Change Agent is the CEO.

But let´s look at the role of the Consultant:

# 1. Provide an agnostic – not affected by office politics – and objective view of the real gap between today (mid-managers and professional reality) and tomorrow (Executives vision and strategy)

# 2. Bring the experience and tools which can help anticipate and prevent potential risks and execution pitfalls.

# 3. A strong Management Consultant should not just help identify and measure the gap, but also help the company cross the chasm.

These are my 2 cents. I hope it helps.

I hope you enjoyed the reading. If so, don´t forget to click on “Like” and share it with others who may find it useful.

You may also like to read my recent posts on Linkedin.

Jordi is the Managing Principal Consultant at Key Strategic Chain Solutions, a management consulting firm specializing in Executive Coaching, Organizational Strategy, Portfolio Management and Operational Excellence.

Best regards,

Jordi Alemany


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