How to introduce a culture of innovation at your business
Everyone says they want innovation in their organization, but when an ambitious employee offers it to a CEO, for example, the idea is often shot down, says Neal Thornberry, Ph.D., faculty director for innovation initiatives at the Naval Postgraduate School in California.
“Senior leaders often miss the value-creating potential of a new concept because they either don’t take the time to really listen and delve into it, or the innovating employee presents it in the wrong way,” says Thornberry, who recently published “Innovation Judo,” (www.NealThornberry.com), based on his years of experience teaching innovation at Babson College and advising an array of corporate clients, from the Ford Co. and IBM to Cisco Systems.
“Innovation should be presented as opportunities, not ideas. Opportunities have gravitas while ideas do not!”
Thornberry outlines a template for innovation that works:
Once the “why” is answered, leaders have the beginnings of a legitimate roadmap to innovation’s fruition. This is no small task and requires some soul searching.
“I once worked with an executive committee, and I got six different ideas for what ‘innovation’ meant,” he says. “One wanted new products, another focused on creative cost-cutting, and the president wanted a more innovative culture. The group needed to agree on their intent before anything else.”
This is where you designate who is responsible for what. It’s tough, because the average employee will not risk new responsibility and potential risk without incentive. Some companies create units specifically focused on innovation, while others try to change the company culture in order to foster innovation throughout. “Creating a culture takes too long,” Thornberry says. “Don’t wait for that.”
What do you know about the problem? IDEO may be the world’s premier organization for investigating innovative solutions. Suffice to say that the organization doesn’t skimp on collecting and analyzing data. At this point, data collection is crucial, whereas brainstorming often proves to be a waste of time if the participants come in with the same ideas, knowledge and opinions that they had last week with no new learning in their pockets.
The fourth step is also the most fun and, unfortunately, is the part many companies leap to. This is dangerous because you may uncover many exciting and good ideas, but if the right context and focus aren’t provided up front, and team members cannot get on the same page, then a company is wasting its time. That is why intent must be the first step for any company seeking to increase innovation. Innovation should be viewed as a set of tools or processes, and not a destination.
Here’s where the rubber meets the road on innovation. Whereas the previous step was creative, now logic and subtraction must be applied to focus on a result. Again, ideas are great, but they must be grounded in reality. An entrepreneurial attitude is required here, one that enables the winnowing of ideas, leaving only those with real value-creating potential.
“Innovation without the entrepreneurial mindset is fun but folly,” Thornberry notes.
Does anyone care about what you’ve come up with? Will excitement spread during this infection phase? Now is the time to find out. Pilot testing, experimentation and speaking directly with potential customers begin to give you an idea of how innovative and valuable an idea is. This phase is part selling, part research and part science. If people can’t feel, touch or experience your new idea in part or whole, they probably won’t get it. This is where the innovator has a chance to reshape their idea into an opportunity, mitigate risk, assess resistance and build allies for their endeavor.
While many talk about this final phase, they often fail to address the integration part. Implementation refers to tactics that are employed in order to put an idea into practice. This is actually a perilous phase because, in order for implementation to be successful, the idea must first be successfully integrated with other activities in the business and aligned with strategy. An innovation, despite its support from the top, can still fail if a department cannot work with it.
Neal Thornberry, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of IMSTRAT, LLC a consulting firm that specializes in helping private and public sector organizations develop innovation strategies. A respected thought leader in innovation, Thornberry is a highly sought-after international speaker and consultant. He also serves as the faculty director for innovation initiatives at the Center for Executive Education at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. Thornberry, author of “InnovationJudo:Disarming Roadblocks & Blockheads on the Path to Creativity” (www.NealThornberry.com), holds a doctorate in organizational psychology and specializes in innovation, corporate entrepreneurship, leadership and organizational transformation.
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.