9 in 10 execs say innovation top priority: Survey

Priorities include improving existing products, services and developing new business processes
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/25/2013

Office supplies company Staples has taken one of its 300 Canadian stores off the grid to use as an innovation lab.

At the undisclosed location, employees have free range to explore innovative ways of doing things, solving problems, coming up with new products or processes — all without fear of reprisal, according to Claude Legrand, managing partner of Staples Innovation in Toronto, which assists other companies with innovation.

“They’re experimenting with some of the staffing issues — Can you staff differently? Can you manage people differently? Those are all kinds of experiments that they’re doing in a non-threatening environment,” he said. “They’re starting to look at the store differently.”

Finding ways to be more innovative is top-of-mind for business leaders across Canada. Nearly nine in 10 (87 per cent) executives said innovation is a strategic priority for their business, according to the Global Innovation Barometer, released by GE, based on a survey of 3,100 executives in 25 countries, with 100 respondents from Canada.

“Innovation is really a global phenomenon and it’s tied to competitiveness and growth opportunities, so if you’re not innovative, you’re not going to be growing and you’re not going to be fighting your competition,” said Kim Warburton, vice-president of communications and public affairs at GE in Mississauga, Ont.

Various types of innovation are expected to drive the performance of Canadian businesses in the future. The improvement of existing products or services is the most prevalent form of innovation, according to 82 per cent of survey respondents. The development of new business processes (76 per cent) and the development of entirely new products or services (64 per cent) are also priorities.

“A lot of people think traditionally ‘OK, innovation is that new product.’ But there is innovation in processes — how can we do things better, faster, cheaper? How can we build in a lot more efficiencies so we can increase productivity?” said Warburton. “It can also be new solutions or looking at things in a different way.”

It’s important for organizations to know what innovation means to them, said Nilufer Erdebil, founder and CEO of Spring2Innovation in Ottawa.

An employer has to figure out what its innovation mission, vision and goals are and make sure these align with the business’ mission, vision and goals, she said.

“It has to start from the top-down, so basically getting an understanding of what innovation means to the C-level, make sure everybody aligns with that, and then we can move forward and communicate it to the rest of the organization.”

Leadership is a key component of successful innovation. Many organizations are struggling with innovation because their leaders are still managing for an industrial economy, said Legrand.

“Today, what they don’t realize is they are managing as if the world was predictable in an unpredictable world,” he said. “They are trying to use the old kind of thinking which is logic, knowledge and eliminate completely the uncertainty and ambiguity that are inherent to the knowledge economy.”

HR can help boost innovation at an organization because it controls 90 per cent of what makes innovation successful, said Legrand.

One way it can do this is by helping to create a culture that supports innovation, which is one of the key abilities companies need to master in order to innovate successfully, according to 80 per cent of survey respondents.

The culture should encourage employees to take risks — which comes from the top, said Legrand.

“If you have an organization where people who take risks are punished, vilified, crucified — usually in public — you cannot have innovation,” he said. “If a leader wants everybody to innovate and every time someone says something out of line they get punished, people are not stupid — they’re going to do what their bosses do, not what they say.”

At Staples, the store manager of the innovation lab has created an environment where employees know reacting negatively is not an option, so the “fear factor” of experimenting has been removed, said Legrand.

Another aspect of creating a culture conducive to innovation is training people to be innovative.

“Many people think they need to teach creativity to people when, in fact, you need to teach leaders how to lead innovation, managers how to manage innovative teams and individuals how to apply innovative thinking,” said Legrand. “Innovation is a skill, it’s something you can learn. It’s like typing — it’s not a talent, that’s a big mistake people make.”

Innovative thinking is the process of solving problems. At Staples, an entire day is spent on learning how to define the problem — the first step in innovative thinking.

“How do you really understand what’s happening, the root cause, not from a Six Sigma point of view, but including people, ambiguity, uncertainty,” said Legrand.

After that, there is training around generating an idea and implementing it.

It’s important to have collaboration tools in place to capture employees’ ideas, said Erdebil. This can include ideation software or enterprise-level social media.

“There are a lot of tools out there that haven’t necessarily been traditionally in HR’s realm, but it’s becoming more and more prevalent,” she said. “(In many big companies), collaboration and collective intelligence is huge and it’s the HR department that’s heading that up.”

It is also important for employers to have performance metrics in place around innovation, so employees can be evaluated on whether or not they are collaborating and participating in innovation for the organization, said Erdebil.

Attracting and retaining innovative people is another key ability companies need to focus on, according to 88 per cent of survey respondents.

“Past performance is a good indicator of whether or not people are going to be innovative and if they have an entrepreneurial spirit in terms of what they want to do or what they have done in the past,” said Erdebil. “Innovation involves a lot of the time moving outside the regular box, so people who aren’t afraid to push the envelope a bit.”

Challenging generally accepted ways of working is perceived as a key ability for innovation by 69 per cent of survey respondents.

And ensuring an organization is innovation-focused may help to recruit younger workers, as 91 per cent of executives agreed there is a strong appetite for innovation among younger generations.

“Companies are going to have to demonstrate that you can have an innovative, entrepreneurial kind of environment for young people because that’s what they want,” said Warburton. “(They want) the opportunity to stretch, to collaborate, to work on teams, to really learn things and feel like they are contributing and moving that needle forward.”

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