What I Learned From Listening to the Greatest Innovation Leaders in the World


IMG_4359Yesterday I flew down to Porto and the ISPIM conference to meet up with fellow researchers and industry colleagues from all over the world, to talk about our greatest passion –Innovation. All day I’ve had the opportunity to listen to the latest scientific findings and good practice within the field.

Ramon Vullings started up by inspiring us to start fusing art and technology, putting ideas in combination with trends and to copy, adopt and paste. Ramon stressed the fact that the industry lines are blurred, and a question for you and your organization to consider is where your future competition or partner will come from. It might be from the most unexpected area.

I’ve been to quite a few innovation conferences and meet-ups during the years and I’ve seen how the focus has changed from product and service innovation to be more about methods and processes for innovation. But listening to the talks and topics of this conference I notice a small but important change of focus. We have finally put people back in the center of the equation, and (almost) everyone seems to stress a people-centric approach to innovation.

I’ll give you a glimpse of some of today’s discussions. World famous innovation researcher John Bessant presented an ongoing research project about “Innovating innovation management teaching” where the core is “learner-centered teaching methods”. Even though this still encompasses methods and tools it is focused on people and interactions that supports both conditions for innovation as well as knowledge building and sharing.

Another hot topic, presented by Kate Hammer, is storytelling and how we can use storytelling, anecdotes and narratives to innovate. It gave me the opportunity to present some of my research on Storyboarding where I connect narrative, design thinking and visual thinking into a process tool for framing opportunities for innovation by reflection-in-action. This approach is focused on putting people (and their implicit and explicit needs and desires) in the center for innovation opportunities.

These topics are great, but I can’t help thinking that we are missing out on something important in our discussions. If we say that people are the most essential dimension of innovation, we need to stress the importance of creating the right conditions for people to be innovative. Not only provide them with tools and methods.

The way I see it, you have no clue that what you and your team are working on is going to be an innovation, until you see that it has created the expected (or unexpected) value. This means that people, most of the time, are more likely to do their daily tasks rather than innovating, and then if all the other factors are right, innovation might happen.

As humans, we are curious by nature and that is why many of us want to explore new things and alternative solutions, especially at work. This requires us to have time to reflect and get a chance to question current ways of working. It is in fact more important than we think.

For more than 40 years Göran Ekvall researched what dimensions are important for creative and innovative organizations and found that “idea time” or time for reflection is one of the most important dimensions (along with nine more). How much time would you say that you actually spend in your organization reflecting over alternative ways of working?

I would say that the challenge for organizations today is to exploit and explore. By this I mean that organizations need to be ambidextrous – to have the ability to be both. This is shown by March as early as 1991 and recently confirmed by Stieber and Alänge in their research on leadership in Silicon Valley.

We know that organizations are made up of people and that people need to have the right conditions at work to flourish and to explore alternative routes. To be innovative and stay competitive we need to release the power of all employees. We can’t afford not to.

I believe that leadership is the key for this to happen. But it places new demands on leaders, where adjustment and flexibility is needed in their leadership to cope with the changing dynamics in the climate of the team as well as factors outside the team. This requires a proactive leadership style that continuously creates the right conditions for reflection and exploration.

 How much time do you spend on reflection in an average working week? Do you consider reflection as an important aspect of innovation? How do you think we can help leaders to be more proactive and to better handle the dynamics of a team? Do not hesitate to leave a comment on your thoughts!

/Anders Wikström, PhD Innovation and Design
Founder of Prindit

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