Business leaders across industries agree: to be successful you have to be innovative. Nearly 85 percent of business leaders surveyed by CB Insights said innovation is “very important” to their business, and 66 percent of US organizations surveyed by PA Consulting say their organizations will not survive without innovation. Despite understanding the importance of innovation, fully half of senior executives admit that their leaders lack the vision and passion needed to make it happen.
Part of the problem might be the way executives present the need for innovation to their teams.
No Time For Innovation
Employees are busy. Most of them have a stack of projects and deadlines to meet and the last thing they need is another initiative demanding their attention. But too often that’s how innovation is positioned. I learned this lesson early in my innovation training career while working on Dell’s strategy and innovation team.
Early on, we determined that the siloed nature of the workplace and project teams made it difficult for innovative ideas to emerge and take root. We thought that if people were brought together in cross-functional teams to learn how to use design thinking and solve “global” problems, it would not only give them the tools to innovate, it would foster stronger communication across the divisions and help people build internal networks for better problem solving.
We began by hosting fortnightly meetings for cross-functional groups in the Global Operations organization after they had been through ExperienceInnovation Learn. Employees loved the training, however, after the first few sessions many of them stopped showing up. When we asked them about what was holding them back they said they were just too busy to take on another project, much less one focused on a “global” (i.e. irrelevant to their daily work) problem statement.
It was major “aha moment” for us. We were trying to give them a new way to solve their existing problems, but they saw it as another problem to solve. That realization forced us to rethink how we talked about innovation and design thinking, and what would make employees see the value it brought. Fortunately we had already seen some successes. In parallel, our team had helped the the enterprise organization save millions of dollars through design-thinking-driven projects.
Connect Strategy to Innovation
We used that success as leverage to talk to the SVPs of all the major functional areas in the company about how they could use innovation and design thinking to meet their own strategic goals. Whether they were trying to increase revenue, reduce costs, or improve customer satisfaction, we showed them how design thinking strategies could help them achieve those metrics. Showing them the link between innovation and business goals immediately captured their interest, and soon they were talking about the need for innovation in the same meetings where they discussed profit projections and strategic planning. We also used that same approach, of innovation as work, not “extra” work, to connect directly with teams all over the globe to help them realize how to bring this powerful methodology to bear on the problems they faced day-in and day-out.
The connection between strategy and innovation rapidly filtered down through their organizations, and soon we were being asked to run workshops across the company focused on using design thinking to tackle specific business problems.
If business leaders want their organizations to embrace innovation as part of the strategic process, they first have to acknowledge that innovation and design thinking are not activities unto themselves. These tools are there to help make it easier for employees to achieve goals, solve complex problems, and to find new exciting ways to delight customers. Unless they see it that way, employees won’t engage, and the innovative culture leaders so desperately seek will never take root.
Rick Menchaca is a practice lead at Menchaca Consulting, LLC, which is focused on delivering outsized value-creation, capability building, and cultural impact with its clients. Using Design Thinking and other strategy consulting tools, Rick helps firms make headway against their strategic priorities.