Why innovation should be a cultural imperative at your workplace

Disruption is the new normal, and organisations need to adapt, innovate, co-create to stay relevant and grow

Updated: Mar 16, 2021 06:22:15 PM UTC

Gargi Dasgupta is Director of IBM Research India and Chief Technology Officer of IBM India/ South Asia

Image: Shutterstock


The ability to think is an intrinsic ingredient for innovation. IBM founder Thomas J Watson Sr. once said, “All the problems of the world could be settled easily if men were only willing to think.”

These are the famous words of 'The THINK' motto that came into being (in 1911) when one morning at a sales meeting, Watson Sr’s manager didn’t have any good ideas to share on how to improve business growth. “The trouble with every one of us is that we don’t think enough. Knowledge is the result of thought, and thought is the keynote of success in this business or any business,” he told them…and the rest is history. From that day on, he decided that 'THINK' would be the company’s slogan. More than a century later, the slogan remains unchanged and the legacy of innovation lives on. These innovations put a man on the moon and taught machines to debate humans.

The latest finding of the Boston Consulting Group’s study on the 50 Most Innovative Companies list states that innovation is amongst the top-three management priorities for almost two-thirds of companies today, and innovative leaders are remarkably alike regardless of the size of the business. You will find that they align innovation with business goals, build structures that enable innovation, and create a culture that fosters innovation to thrive.

For organisations, innovation correlates with value creation and competitiveness. Hence it is necessary for innovation to become a cultural imperative in a world where digital adoption is on an unparalleled rise. Innovation cannot be an ad-hoc activity; it has to be a systematic approach that is central to all business activities, whether it is hiring diverse teams or designing recognition programs. Like a seed, an idea needs an environment that is conducive for it to grow and flourish and innovative organisations strive to provide that environment through a systematic approach. Here are some insights on how an organisation can stimulate and nurture a culture of innovation:

Innovation as a business value
Innovation works best when it becomes a philosophy, and it is broadly applied through the organisa­tion from goal setting to performance evaluation not just for its business growth but also for its employees and their growth. This commitment is reflected in the Research & Development (R&D) investments as well as employee development programs. Employees naturally collaborate and support new thoughts and initiatives, when there is a strong emphasis on innovation culture. When this innovation comes in the context of the business landscape, it can become a game-changer.

Encourage an entrepreneurial and growth mindset
We live in a VUCA (short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) world that challenges us to find a new solution every other day. On the other hand, innovation is a complicated process, and it is likely that eight times out of ten you may fail. A growth mindset will power you to embrace all challenges, expect setbacks, learn, pivot, and come up with an even better and stronger idea. Fail fast and move on. Resiliency is super critical if you want to be successful in innovating—because remember, if you are not failing, you are not innovating enough.

Diverse and inclusive teams
Innovation involves teamwork and collaboration, and a diverse and inclusive team brings in different perspectives, skills, experiences which can be critical for an idea to succeed. Even for technologies such as AI, cloud, blockchain or quantum to grow, we need more diverse minds to ideate as well as avoid risks and biases.

Grassroots Innovation
Innovation begins with an idea and anyone can be an inventor/innovator—you do not have to be the most senior person in the team to be an innovator. Ideating is critical for innovation. Therefore, an open, flexible idea generation platform like ideation jams within an organisation or with clients or ecosystem partners are good ways to generate ideas. Scope of idea generation can vary from improving internal processes or solving a business or a societal challenge or just a novel way to do things. These encourage people to move beyond their comfort zones, think differently, and collaborate easily. The most important factor to foster grassroots is to enable the reception of ideas at all levels. No idea is ever a bad idea. It just needs direction and shaping.

Formalise the process
Many organisations have dedicated teams whose primary role is inventing or research activity and eventually patenting ideas. However, if the innovation process is formalised, providing employees with unstructured time to pursue ideas, a network to iterate on ideas or a dedicated team to support, mentor and facilitate innovators to patent their ideas, it could motivate and inspire many first-time inventors.

Incentivise innovation
While patenting ideas creates value for organisations, incentivising employees, providing visible recognition promotes innovative behaviour and reduces conservatism. This creates a win-win situation for both the organisation and the employee.

Innovation helps organisations differentiate themselves to stay relevant and drive business growth. By adopting a more disciplined approach organisations can position themselves to become the innovation leaders of the future.

The writer is Director of IBM Research India and Chief Technology Officer of IBM India/ South Asia

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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