The Secret To Daily Innovation

4 July, 2016 / Articles

When Balanda Atis joined L’Oréal as a chemist to formulate mascaras, she never forgot her experiences as teenager of not being able to find a foundation that worked for her skin tone. It wasn’t until seven years into her job that Atis was able to muster up the courage to approach the head of the makeup division about solving for the foundation issue. Atis was allowed to take on the project—as long as it didn’t interfere with her day job. With that clearance, Atis enlisted two other employees, and together in their off time got access to labs and L’Oréal road shows. Through persistence and curiosity, the breakthrough came when Atis discovered they could reuse an existing color compound and ended up solving a dilemma that had existed for generations.

What we can learn from Atis is that innovation doesn’t need to come in the form of competitions, accelerators, incubators, or labs—it can be fostered internally and rapidly through any and all employees. Although many Fortune 500 companies cite hierarchy, bureaucracy, and internal politics as challenges to garnering innovative ideas from employees, others have figured out how to overcome these issues by shifting employee mindsets to those known to drive entrepreneurial change; almost inevitably, behaviors that drive innovation will follow.

  1. Mindset: Act like a change agent.

Last year, General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt gave up his personal dining room in the company’s Fairfield, CT headquarters. It was to become an “innovation hangout,” a comfortable spot where employees could lounge on Ikea couches while sharing inspirations on whiteboards. Although this was just one aspect of a larger transformation, the 123-year old corporate behemoth was surely taking a page from the startup playbook—as well as placing a bet that large organizations can indeed nurture the collaborative, innovative spirit of smaller ones.

Of the remodel, Viv Goldstein, GE’s global director of innovation acceleration, explained, “It’s about giving people the environment to think in a different way and getting people to take risks.” Indeed, Goldstein reported that the company was experiencing “an entire organizational change,” which ultimately entailed hiring coaches to train executives on risk taking and learning from failure as well as replacing annual reviews with daily check-ins and updates. In essence, GE has given executives the clearance—and the tools—to take risks, learn constantly, and ask questions. But most importantly, GE is creating an environment in which the change agent mindset can manifest into behavior that is desirable to the business.

In my work, I’ve seen similar environments created virtually through intentional employee networks that cultivate change agent behavior. For example, one large professional services firm developed informal Slack communities in which anyone in the organization could create a special interest group with the sole purpose of deconstructing existing processes and sharing smarter working practices. The simple act of allowing and welcoming such groups led to significant changes in how work gets done. (For the better!)

  1. Mindset: Ask others outside the silo.

Inclusion is now an almost universally held value in corporate America with many benefits, as well as challenges. When it comes to collaboration, many fear “paralysis by analysis,” when inclusion leads to confusion and waste instead of productivity. The key to overcome this fear is to design projects and workflows that encourage and reward active participation in meaningful work.

I’ve worked with organizations to design workflows and projects as a series of problems that need to be solved. From there, the issues are shared in a virtual community where employees are asked to volunteer to help. For example, for an accounting firm, we set up an internal community similar to a Taskrabbit paradigm, where issues and projects are posted to the entire firm, and volunteers are encouraged to contribute (and most do!). Hence, the call for inclusion isn’t just to get feedback on something already going on, but can also be used as an outreach to see if someone outside the silo has an idea about a particular issue.

Collaboration is about enhancing each other’s work and creating something greater as a group than would be possible for an individual. The mindset of thinking outside the silo is at the heart of innovation and yields impressive results.

  1. Mindset: Get unstuck from “usual” ways of working.

Often times, employees may have the acumen to act entrepreneurial but feel confined by existing processes and protocol; in turn they remain silent or choose not to take action. Kanyon Hillare, a technician for Safelight Autoglass, an auto services firm based in Portland, provides the perfect example of how a front-line service employee became “unstuck” and used his entrepreneurial mindset to make a tremendous positive impact on his organization.

Hillare made a regular practice of calling his clients each day to provide job updates. One day he was unable to communicate with a client who was deaf. But driven by solution not frustration, he took a simple step. He asked a friend who knew sign language for a favor. By day’s end Hillaire had sent the client a video of his friend sharing the update in American sign language. Safelight ultimately celebrated Hillare’s efforts in a television advertisement, which ended with the message, “As a result of Kanyon’s innovative thinking, Safelight created videos for deaf and hard of hearing customers.”

The beauty of Hillare’s mindset is that he wasn’t defeated when faced with a challenge. He took the initiative and created a solution that was then embraced across the organization—a surefire way to create an entrepreneurial culture. Especially for large companies, entrepreneurial mindsets and behaviors can be an advantage over the competition, but only if the right ones are cultivated.

Your next ideation program, competition or process will not an immediate innovation culture –it’s the continuous habits, collaborative behaviors and ways of working that will take your initiatives from program to systemic culture change.

The science man and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.

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