Innovate by unlocking the power of your people

By Ed Fox

Incremental innovation is no longer enough – the world needs breakthrough innovation. It needs innovations that move forward in huge leaps. Innovations that challenge, inspire, and drive growth.

Seventy-four percent of leaders surveyed in our recent research the ‘Breakthrough Brigade’ believe that breakthrough innovation has become even more important following the pandemic. A further 42 percent were concerned their organisations would not survive without it. Organisations need innovation to thrive – and the bar is high.

When we think of innovation, we often think of an innovation team, siloed off in a separate part of the company – a group of intellectuals, paid to think about new ways of doing things. But innovation isn’t just about creative branding or a new product. And it isn’t a buzz word in a set of company values. In a well-led company, innovation is everywhere, and reflects everyone’s strengths. So, how can you use your people to drive innovation across your organisation?

Empower your disruptors

In order to pursue innovation, enable disrupters throughout your organisation. Recent research we conducted into the qualities required for good leadership also extolled the virtues of enabling disruption.

One way of doing this is to create a shadow board. These are not something new. A shadow board is an extension of reverse mentoring and introduces leaders to different perspectives that are not well represented across the board and C-Suite. Gucci found that creating a shadow board of Millennial Non-Executive Directors was a smart way to tap into diverse perspectives and release innovation within the organisation. While Prada’s sales dropped 11.5 percent, Gucci’s sales grew 135 percent in the same period – highlighting the link between embracing disruption and performance. Gucci was able to use its disrupters to make sure senior leaders were able to keep up with the changes in digital channels and blogging influencers that were disrupting the market. With the trend for shadow boards growing, now might be the perfect time for you to introduce one. If you already have a shadow board, think of ways to further empower it, ensuring everyone’s voices are heard.

The world is alive with disruptors – but they might not realise it yet, because they’ve not been given the opportunity to. People can feel the pressure to say the same thing as everyone else, when they actually see things differently. They can be scared to speak up when they have an idea, because they’re embarrassed of looking silly. But anyone has the potential to unlock innovation in their organisation.

Take a strengths-based approach to people development

Strengths are the things we do, the values we exhibit, and the motivations we demonstrate when we focus on what we do best. We lose ourselves in our work. We learn quicker. People see us at our most energised. As early as 2002, The Corporate Leadership Council recognised how important strengths-based feedback was, noting that where leaders give strengths-based feedback, performance improves by 36 percent. And, The Gallop Institute research on teams found that when teams bring their strengths to their role, productivity increases by 12.5 percent. This research remains just as relevant today.

It’s important to think about strengths – and not just skills – when looking to create innovative teams and culture. The strengths to look for include curiosity, idea generation, pattern identification, joining the dots, and humour. The team needs to be clear about their individual and collective strengths and how it enables them to collaborate with the rest of the business to solve problems.

When leaders start to take a strengths-based approach to people development, they release the potential of different ways of thinking into their organisation and drive breakthrough innovation.

Embrace diversity and inclusion

Valuing the breadth of strengths that people contribute is core to being an inclusive leader. Leaders who know that diversity matters role model inclusion, building a culture where people feel safe and new ideas surface. People want to contribute when they feel they are making a difference and learning from leaders. Fear of failure can stifle innovation, so if leaders create a psychologically safe and inclusive culture, employees will feel safer to experiment creatively. And experimentation is key to driving innovation. This doesn’t need to be difficult – it’s often about noticing where unique ideas exist, and inviting different people into the room to influence outcomes. Our research has found that thoughtful assessment and selection of team members with a desire to learn and an enthusiasm to collaborate with others, sets the basis for inclusive teams. Furthermore, teams that challenge one another safely lead to greater creative thinking. Collaboration is key. We make our best contribution when we work with others.

Look at what Mattel have achieved with the Barbie Fashionista line. Working with a variety of employees from diverse backgrounds, there are now over 150 dolls pursuing various careers with different skin tones, eye colours, body types, and fashion styles. By actively embracing and encouraging diversity, Mattel have reinvented Barbie for a whole new market. Another example is Lego. In June 2021, they worked with their LGBT+ colleagues and launched ‘The A to Z of Awesome’, in celebration of Pride. It was inspired by the rainbow flag. In 2022, the product was reinvented with a social media campaign to engage and educate customers in a fun and playful way. Collaboration in an organisation that understands the power of diversity creates the right climate for innovation to thrive.

As we move through economic uncertainty, innovation is more important than ever for organisations looking to thrive. Your people are the secret ingredient to that innovation. People are engaged and contribute consistently high performance when organisations empower them to bring their strengths to the workplace.

About the authors

Ed Fox PA culture and performance expert

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