I had the pleasure to be interviewed by Doug Sandler for a new podcast on the human side of innovation call Human with Resources. The conversation focused on how I work with organizations to to help them be more innovative and how.

Transcript of full podcast:

How can one foster innovation within an organization?

There is a great framework that was created by Mel Rhodes in 1961 and is still applicable today. It looks at innovation and creativity from four different aspects: the people, the process, the press (the environment) and product (the outcome).

It is still very valuable. It is important to have leaders that support their people and create a climate where people can thrive and come up with new ideas — and fail if that needs to be.

It is important to have a process so there is a common language when you put a group together being chartered to be innovative.

It is important to have a general environment and culture in the organization supports innovation.

And of course it is important to have an innovative outcome: new product, new services, new experiences for customers or employees (if you are internally focused) or a new process (there is also innovation in process).

Do you have any specific methodology you use to encourage people to create new and innovative ideas?

I use a combination of two main processes.

Creative Problem Solving — I went back to school to get a Master in Creativity and Change Leadership. This is the main process that is being taught. I also have experience with design thinking and what is happening at the d school.

So I use a mix of both processes.  The key things are to really understand the problem, come up with new ideas and develop solutions. And from the design thinking perspective you want to be sure you are user centered — really understand not only your end customers but all the people that will be affected by the changes the organizations is creating. You want to have a mentality of learn/fail quickly and learn from your failures and test a lot. That is the “prototyping attitude” that is very important. You also want to acknowledge that this is iterative. Things are not linear in innovation: if it does not work, you go back and change things.

This is what I use in my work and teach.

In your experience as a coach what is the biggest challenge for an innovative leader to inspire his or her team to innovate?

Two elements: As a leader you need to provide directions and guidance and you are most successful with constraints. Designers love constraints, so designing with constraints is clear. What do you charter your team with? Do they have a limited budget? Limited time? A specific outcome for the organization? and…

You want to give them freedom to try new things, to experiment, to have time, to come up with not a deck, but ideas and run it by you. You would support them and block obstacles. Big organizations have systems and teams that sometimes need to be protected from the big system, the big machine that would kill innovation too early. So as a leader, it is important to have the role of a champion for your team

What are the main barriers against innovation within an organization and how can people learn to deal with them or learn to work with them or learn to work past them?

The biggest one is the culture. Sometimes I have clients that say “lets train the people to be more innovative”. I can train (them) but if the first time they come to you with a new idea and you say “it is never going to happen” or if they feel they are going to be demoted (for failure), you are going to kill innovation. That is the big one, having a culture that is supportive.

It is also having time. Google gives employees 20% free time to work on their own projects. If somebody is in charge of a project where they need to be innovative and it is on top of their regular job, it is not going to work. So you need to have time — time to think, experiment, do things differently.

Also how you are evaluated is very important, how you align the incentives. If people have to succeed the first year or they may be demoted, they may be very afraid and do not take any risk.

Attitude towards risk for innovation is important. You have to measure people and outcome in a different way than for your regular business.

Is there a specific amount of time that a team should dedicate to innovation?

It really depends on which problem a team is chartered with. Some teams in some organizations have an innovation team in charge of exploring new areas, may be an adjacent area and they may spend 100% of their time there. Others are working on a core product and at looking at adding some innovation to it: they are looking an another SKU, to bring some innovation to it and that will be part of their time. For example they have 5 SKUs, and there is one more thing, like M&M is doing an M&M coconut…there may not be a whole team dedicated to it, or there may be I don’t know.

So the type of innovation is important. There is the incremental innovation and the innovation that gets you in a totally new area (disruptive innovation) ; then you will need more time and more resources and more people.

Do you see leadership challenges when it comes to innovation? What do you see as the biggest innovation leadership challenge today?

I think every organization acknowledges they have to be innovative, that creativity is very important and yet a lot of people have no training in creativity and innovation. It is hard to tell somebody suddenly “you have to be innovative, you and your team has to be innovative.” That is a big challenge.

The other challenge is how innovation is considered by the leadership team. Is it part of your strategic goals? Are you including innovation as a key element of your two year plan/five year plan or is it a side thought?

Innovation is about change:  if the whole organization does not embrace it that makes it very challenging. That is one of the challenges discussed at conferences. We are a big organization how do we create and allow for creativity? Different organizations do different things.

  • Some have a team that is chartered with innovation and they have not contact with the rest of the organization; they are isolated on purpose.
  • Others say that it is everybody’s job to think about being innovative even in their every day job.
  • Some think they cannot do it internally and use open source, partner with start-ups or universities.
  • Sometimes you may try different things and see what may or may not work for your organization
  • And some organizations just buy other companies acknowledging they cannot do it internally
How would you measure innovation?

This is a big topic: what are the KPIs (Key Performance Indicator) and key measurements? It really depends on your goal. Ultimately it is about making more money (a CEO perspective). But short term it may be different. A start-up may not make money for many years, but they would look at satisfied customers, number of users, how many new ideas, how many patents. Really it depends why an organization would do innovation and what would it make sense to measure.

When I work with clients it is important to have criteria upfront, because if you do not, six months in the innovation work, how are we going to judge where we are going? Are we going in the right direction?  It is important for each organization, each type of project to be clear about the criteria upfront, and measure against it. Sometimes we may fail and decide, this is still great and we need to tweak it or decide we are not going anywhere and  put our resources, time and energy in other ideas that have more potential.

If an organization reaches their innovation goals, how would you encourage them to celebrate innovation?

It is important to celebrate successes, as well as failures, because failures may be the best thing that happens. Because if you fail early, you did not spend too much time and money and your learned something. So actually you did not really failed, you learned and next time you can be successful. So I would encourage you to celebrate both, success and failures.

You should acknowledge the people, acknowledge the team. Innovation is really a team sport so it is important to acknowledge the whole team. It is never one person idea, never about one person and one idea, it is team’s work. So celebrate the team. It is important to create success stories and communicate within your organization. If people see that innovation is valued then they are more likely to take an initiative. They may have a side project and they have not talked about it with anybody. If they think “there is a hope it may come up in the next batch of innovation ideas” and they may talk to their boss or their peers. So celebrate successes and failures, talk about it, and make it a topic of interest for the organization.

As a coach who works with many large organizations and small organizations, what kind of leadership style is needed to foster innovation?

There are different leadership styles, but the most important is to give people a chance, trusting the people working on innovation, give them a chance to come up with ideas that may be really weird at first or that we will never do. The typical thing that happens in a meeting is that somebody comes up with an idea and you say “it is never going to work” or “too much time”, “too much money”, “we tried it before”. Let’s try to change that, to ask “what if?” “Can it be possible?” Let’s give it a chance for a while; what would it take to take it to the next step? Maybe the next step is investing $5000 and a month of time and talk about it with 10 people. It may not be big but give those seeds a chance to grow and see if there is potential there. That is really important. Because there are ideas, many organizations have a lot of ideas.  The problem is what happens next — from the ideas getting killed to early or having a chance to develop and flourish.

What is the future of innovation: is the attitude innovate or fade away or something different?

Innovation is here for good. With all the new technology that is going to fundamentally change our businesses, talk about AI, Nano-tech, quantum computing… innovation is here to stay. The more we can embrace it, the more we can realize that it is the new normal the better we will all be.