Would you say your organization is innovative?

Maybe? Or maybe not.

What if I asked the question this way: Would you say that innovation and being more innovative are part of your organization’s strategy?

Now that your head is nodding “Yes,” I’ll ask one more question:

How is your organization translating the concept of “innovation” into your daily work?

If this last query has you scratching your head, you’re not alone.

According to research conducted by the Centre for Business Innovation at the Conference Board of Canada, leaders around the globe rank innovation in the top three of their organizational strategies. However, in Canada innovation ranks about fourth or fifth on a list of organizational strategies.

Why Innovate?

Organizations have many reasons to innovate, but  I like to keep things simple.

We innovate to create value and change.

If what we do is viewed as not having value, then no one’s buying it. And, if what we’re doing isn’t working, then we’ve got challenges, problems and opportunities to address, the outcome being that something’s gonna change.

When you open the lid on the typical innovation strategy however, you don’t normally see something concrete; there isn’t a follow through or tangibility about how innovation gets actualized in the organization. Typically, organizations do not view innovation as something that needs to be internalized in their businesses. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of working with organizations who want to improve innovation outcomes, it’s that leaders can’t delegate innovation. They need to be fully involved in helping it become actualized in the organization.

Organizations that identify innovation as a key strategy can actualize innovation in many ways, but I’m going to focus on just one way for now: culture—wiring an organization’s DNA for innovation—because innovation happens through people who bring their creativity and creative thinking to work.

How to Wire Your Organization’s DNA for Innovation

Innovation is difficult to understand and achieve in an outcome vacuum; rather it needs to be woven throughout the organization, to become part of its culture at all levels.  Wiring your organization’s DNA for innovation requires a transformation of your environment into one where creative thinking and learning occur continually, not just when attempting to accomplish change.  Your goal, as an organization, is to become capable of dealing with change as needed. By doing so, your organization will achieve better outcomes to the challenges it faces.

Making innovation part of an organization’s DNA is difficult to achieve by taking courses if the courses are not set within a “learnscape” that allows individuals to connect with their creativity, and to practice their creativity within the team and in the organization. Within my work, I teach clients the practical tools of Creative Problem Solving, but this in itself is not enough to transform an environment or a corporate culture. Learning cannot be isolated from the environment in which that learning must be practiced. Tools need context.

The Learnscape for Innovation

Think of one course as being a tree; the learnscape is the whole shebang—the environment in which that tree lives in addition to all the other trees, plants, flowers, water and wildlife competing in that space, not to mention the rain, snow and sunshine. You can focus on the tree, or you can see the context in which that tree exists.

Similarly, by implementing one course without considering it within the context of your organization, you run the risk of setting your team members loose—with new skills and few places to try them out—in a potentially unfavourable or outright hostile environment where failure is not an option.

The learnscape for innovation has three stages of development:

  1. Connecting employees to their own creativity
  2. Understanding how to optimize their creative thinking as a team
  3. Using this creativity to have organizational impact.

A learnscape for innovation requires an organizational commitment to learning over time. It is unrealistic to expect team members to fully internalize creative thinking without a commitment to extended learning over time or the opportunity to practice and reflect upon what they have learned.

Learning About Risk and Failure

When employees are able to practice what they have learned by undertaking a real-world project within the organization, they learn how to deal with the realities of innovation. They might be successful, and, they might fail. The nature of innovation is such that to fail is part of the process. Experimentation is integral to innovation, and part of the experimentation process is failure. The first try at an experiment is rarely successful. Yet many organizations are uncomfortable with the risk inherent to innovation by virtue of their culture. Most team members also lack the emotional tools to deal with the impact of failure. Individuals need to learn to manage themselves and others through the innovation process on an emotional level.  Learning about risk and failure is a step in this direction.

When innovation is part of an organization’s DNA, its team members are positioned to deal with change as it happens, or even before it happens. Organizations that are successful in translating the concept of innovation into their daily work experience innovation as a verb rather than a noun; team members consider innovation as an opportunity to be proactive, rather than reactive to external forces. Along with this comes a new attitude to risk-taking and an acceptance of failure as an integral part of innovation.

Organizations like these don’t need to question their level of innovation; it’s in their DNA. It just is.