Companies Are Now Making Innovation Everyone’s Job3 February, 2016 / Articles
In the past few weeks, three corporate innovation clients have moved to — or had their roles expanded to include — their company’s training function. As one remarked, perhaps ruefully, “Now I’ve got to get the people who actually do the work to innovate.”
Yes, enterprise innovation conversations seem to be shifting more from the “how” to the “who.” Process and methodology debates have turned into the operational challenge of how best to boost people’s capabilities. For many firms, the innovation agenda is now as much about human capital investment as delivering new products and services.
But if innovation is now everyone’s job, who owns job training?
The answer isn’t “everyone,” and it’s certainly not the CEO. C-suites oversee, but rarely run, innovation implementations. Increasingly, the organization’s innovation champions and evangelists are becoming its “innovation trainers.” I see their briefs extended to hiring, onboarding, and creating KPI dashboards. These constitute the firm’s new innovation funnel.
This new function relies less on bold, big-buck (or -euro) initiatives than on pervasively influencing how their firms value, and evaluate, innovation behavior. These folks effectively rebrand how people perceive innovation inside the enterprise. Being diligent, dedicated, and super-competent used to be enough to get the job or win the promotion. These companies now want prospective hires and promotion candidates to show they’re ready, willing, and able to collaboratively create new value. Innovation attitudes, not just aptitudes, matter. The ethos is as much about culture as competence.
So at a people-analytics-oriented global professional services firm, innovation has moved front and center in both interview and onboarding processes. Resumes and LinkedIn profiles are scoured for keywords, projects, and descriptions denoting innovative efforts. (I’ve been reliably informed that LinkedIn algorithmically examines profiles to help employers better select for cultural compatibility around innovation and other valued workplace qualities.) Job candidates, particularly new MBAs, are asked not just to say how they would help “come up with solutions” to client challenges, but to propose innovation-oriented business concepts that generate new growth. Teams are now required to describe and share “the most innovative thing we are doing for this engagement.”
Expensive? No. Global? Yes. Influential? That’s the bet.
At one popular QSR chain, managers now ask even entry-level applicants if they’d be willing to help test and improve new foods and service offerings. New hires are expected to take a quick smartphone-compatible quiz on the company’s innovation successes. A skillfully edited two-minute video with one of the company’s chefs has proven particularly effective at engaging new employees around quality fast food innovation. (It’s still too early to say if the company can get its younger managers to “chat” company-wide about what they’re doing.)
Similarly, one of the more customer-centric airlines has established regular flight attendant debriefs — both online and in person — to collect observations and suggestions on how premium flyers actually use their electronics and amenities. Assuring enjoyable in-flight experiences is a necessary but not sufficient core cultural commitment; crews are expected to recommend “passenger experience” improvements.
For managers of a certain age, this may all seem like reinventing the suggestion box, albeit with digital and networked flavors. Democratizing and popularizing innovation is definitely an organizational aspiration. All these firms have R&D facilities and formal innovation processes, but they’re seeking levels of individual engagement that, frankly, had not existed before.
They’re counting on greater participation to roll out new products and services faster and more easily.
Another clear difference is that these kaizen efforts, unlike their Japanese predecessors, are more customer-in than internal-process-out. That is, employees whose workflows touch customers and clients are being asked — or, rather, told — to propose innovations that measurably enhance user experience. They’re being trained not simply to suggest improvements, but to craft use cases and digital prototypes with colleagues that scale to real-world tests. New external value, not just better internal efficiencies, is now part of their jobs.
While I’m surprised that more companies don’t have their own internal innovation Salman Khan–types, I can’t help noting that entrepreneurs-turned-trainers are improvising just-in-time curricular mash-ups of TED talks, Big Think videos, and HBR.org articles in their efforts to transform innovation conversations firm-wide.
They’re not just leading by example, they’re innovating by example.