How can a leader build an organization capable of innovating continually over time?

I recently responded to a question on Quora about building an organisation capable of innovating continually over time.

“[Y]ou can ask people to innovate or be innovative, but if you do not give them the knowledge and tools to innovate, you may get flashes of genius, but not sustained and prolonged results.”

Answer by Oakley Kwon:

I agree with previous sentiments that to create sustainable innovation you need ‘innovation’ to be a core value. Absolutely. In order to transform this value into core capability is however, a little more challenging.
What I have experienced in the few years that I have been working in the innovation capability building space for government has been that, everyone knows innovation is important, but not a lot of people know how to achieve it at an organisation-wide level. No one likes the idea that innovation is an additional thing that you need to add to your performance agreement (though it is a necessary step). Instead, people prefer that innovation be ‘part of how everyone should be doing things’, it should be part of business-as-usual.
This second approach looks at innovation as a core competency and capability rather than a thing that you produce. I have over the years come to see the virtue in this position.
At the end of the day, it comes down to this, you can ask people to innovate or be innovative, but if you do not give them the knowledge and tools to innovate, you may get flashes of genius, but not sustained and prolonged results.
So, first and foremost, you need to know what workforce competencies are required for people to innovate. Here are a few suggestions:
  • Specialist knowledge and skills — design thinking, business modelling, solution architecture, agile and lean methodology, knowledge of innovation models and how to adapt all these to match the needs of your organisation.
  • Generalist skills — creativity and creative problem solving, influencing skills, decision making skills, an ability to create and work within multi-disciplinary teams, project management and change management skills.
You’ll be thinking right now, that’s a big ask. You bet, and that’s why not a lot of organisations have cracked the sustainable innovation problem yet. So, how do you achieve this in a practical way? Be strategic about who you require to have what skills.
Your C-suites and executives don’t need to have their heads down in the weeds, they just need to provide the rest of the organisation the support it needs to get innovating. All you want your executives to do is sign a memo (preferably a public document) stating that innovation is a priority for the organisation and that they personally support any efforts to build innovation capability. This creates legitimacy for staff to take on the challenge of building innovation capability, and it commits the top level to a change agenda.
It is your middle managers and your new recruits that should be skilled up. These key levels have the ability to spread and transform the culture of your organisation, because one has the ability to influence the day-to-day operations of the organisation, and the other doesn’t have organisational baggage to overcome. Over time, the change filters from the top down and rises from the bottom up. Everyone else in between will be nudged through peer-to-peer learning (and pressure) to change.
It is critically important that building innovation competency be attached to existing work, priorities and problems. It should be about applied and self-learning (with clear KPIs), requiring people to learn on the job, not about sending people off to classrooms to learn things out of context and return and try to apply the theory. This approach makes innovation relevant to people’s day-to-day jobs, encourages staff to generate their own sense of motivation, and teaches staff how to be continuously learning, and that curiosity and skills building is an individual responsibility, not just a HR function.
Openly reward and encourage experimentation and constructive failures — if you want, you can have awards for the most spectacular failures (so long as part of the judging criteria includes a learning component). Always place time frames and KPIs around experiments and expect staff to make mistakes, which they must then demonstrate that they have learnt from through either a new version of their prototype, or a new iteration of their plan etc.
Put a time limit of 2 years on this competency building agenda, after which, you can then really start to look at things like innovation hubs and labs, running jams and hacks, having communities of practice and networks, setting up partnerships, processes and technology to allow your staff, who now have a better understanding of how to innovate, to have the hard tools to then innovate on grander scales and at higher speeds.

Check out the response on Quora: How can a leader build an organization capable of innovating continually over time?


Originally published at Oakley Kwon.