"Imagine if every corner of your organization was pulsing with radical, rule-breaking concepts for new products, providing you with a continuous flow of innovations to delight your customers, confound your competitors, and richly reward your shareholders. Imagine you could go online 24/7 and get a comprehensive, real-time window on your company’s global innovation activities. And imagine if every single one of your employees everywhere were trained in the principles, skills, and tools of innovation so they could generate novel ideas. Well, stop imagining. At some of the world’s leading companies, this is really happening — in organizations like GE, P&G, IBM, Whirlpool, and W. L. Gore, just to name a few. They’ve turned innovation into a core competence. Most senior executives say they get the message, yet very few have managed to pull it off."
— Innovation to the Core by Skarzynsky & Gibson
Few areas of today's business environment have gained as much attention recently as innovation. It has become the centerpiece of the most prominent business magazines — two feature Business Week articles in June, 2009 alone. The Economist magazine called innovation "...the single most important ingredient in any economy." GE’s CEO, Jeff Immelt has called for "imagination breakthroughs" as the most effective vehicle "to put GE’s growth on steroids." Prominent author and journalist, Tom Friedman called for the U.S. to “innovate our way out of the great recession” in his June 28, 2009 New York Times op-ed feature titled "Invent, Invent, Invent."
America shouldn't need lecturing or prodding on the subject of innovation. After all, the telephone, automobile, airplane, microwave oven, fiberoptics, the Internet, and hundreds, even thousands, of examples of American ingenuity account for our reputation as the world’s leader in "ideation." Yet, recently, while innovation has become a white-hot issue, there is growing concern over our country's continued leadership in this area. Some futurists estimate that, in 20 years, China and India will each be responsible for more patents than the U.S. One of the June, 2009 Business Week cover stories titled, "Innovation: The Lost Decade," bemoans America's slippage in its legendary ingenuity.
The growing concern over our innovation leadership is understandable.
- As today’s companies struggle financially, innovation’s cost becomes a major factor, especially since success rates are low. The pharmaceutical industry is a prime example.
- Company CEOs, whose average tenure is approximately four years, can be understandably concerned that innovation risk taking could be career limiting.
- The U.S. patent office is deluged with tens of millions of patent applications each year and it’s struggling to keep up. Questions are now arising over whether U.S. patent law is outdated and counterproductive to invention.
What kind of leadership fosters innovation?
All this comes at a time of a sobering reality: the U.S. must re-take the innovation lead, regardless of the challenges. While there is no "silver-bullet" solution to regaining its creative momentum, sound leadership is seen as main ingredient in the business context — the kind of leadership that creates an enabling, failure-tolerant innovation culture.
It's the kind of leadership that led to the W.L. Gore Company’s practice of honoring and openly thanking teams that tried, but didn’t succeed.
It’s the kind of leadership that allows Google's employees to periodically devote full days to just "imagine."
It's the kind of leadership that prompted Cemex Corporation to provide nine "innovation days" each year to all employees.
It's the kind of leadership that enabled CEO Herb Kelleher to create a fresh, new flying experience at Southwest Airlines.
It's the kind of leadership that compels every Whirlpool employee to attend courses on innovation.
It's about leadership’s awareness that innovation is not necessarily about inventing "the next big thing." It's about a leader’s awareness that corporate culture is the "playing field of innovation," and that human resources, by being caretakers of a corporate culture, can play a major role in cultivating an enabling environment."
In "Innovation To The Core," the authors are clear: "...as soon as a company recognizes the value of building a corporate-wide innovation capability, human resources moves to center stage...HR professionals can add value by creating a company culture where everyone is responsible for innovation…whether as an innovator, mentor, manager or team member."
How can Human Resource executives give voice and leverage to product and service creativity?
- Helping to remove cultural impediments such as politics and the NIH (not-invented here) syndrome.
- Encouraging diversity. If you want to innovate for the world, you need to look like the world!
- Celebrating, rewarding, and making it fun! The Body Shop has a "DODGI" (Department of Damned Good Ideas)!
- Helping to create a sustained and innovative drumbeat. As one author said, "It's not about a suggestion box."
- Reinforcing the reality that many time-honored leadership characteristics are essential to creating an innovative culture: courage, accountability, tenacity, collaboration, optimism, trust, inspiration, intuition, integrity, passion.
It also doesn't hurt if the HR leader is personally creative and proactive.
Largely through the efforts of Colleen Barrett, Herb Kelleher's Chief HR Officer, Southwest Airlines is committed to perennially honoring and recognizing people in unglamorous jobs! For the maintenance mechanics, there’s the "Top Wrench Award"; for the custodial people, there's the "Top Cleaner Award." What was Colleen's award for developing these programs? Kelleher promoted her to President when he assumed the role of Chairman!
Today's thought leaders stress the importance of innovation.
Educator, author and global thought leader, Gary Hamel, is persistent and eloquent on the subject of the innovation imperative. In a Harvard Business Review piece, he urges us to "free innovators, involve customers, stick with it, innovate boldly and on the cheap." He suggests that, "in a world of ever-accelerating change, innovation is the only insurance against irrelevance!"
In their "Welchway" column in the July 13, 2009 issue of BusinessWeek, Jack and Suzie Welch suggest the following: "...values of candor, informality and innovation must be baked into (an organization's) culture... in the 'revised' economy of the future, speed, flexibility and innovation will be more crucial than ever." Human resources leadership is central to this agenda.
Interested to learn more? Contact LHH today to talk talent!