Fostering innovation with diversity

It’s no exaggeration to say that the “business as usual” approach can be fatal these days. In today’s business context, to avoid being disrupted, it is becoming essential for companies to disrupt themselves first.

As a consequence, new and somewhat unconventional approaches to business development and strategy are being pioneered and adopted around the world.

What is more, in an era when consumers are far more empowered and knowledgeable than in the past, business leaders must ensure that their organisations are capable of innovative approaches and can act fast enough to respond to this rapid and constant change.

Just like in the startup environment where everyone needs to be involved in everything, more conventional companies are now starting to adopt the same working method. In other words, multifaceted teams are highly encouraged in order to widen the overall perspective for better performance and results.

Now, before we go into more detail about the benefits of diverse teams and how they can bring about innovation, let’s take a step back and look at the word innovation itself to get a better understanding.

To be competitive in the global marketplace, organisations need more innovation. However, some might not appreciate that innovation goes beyond just product and service development. In reality, innovation can manifest itself in multiple ways ranging from strategy to business processes, operations and management methods.

Innovation only comes about through invitation and dedication. First, you have to invite innovation into your organisation by embracing new ways of doing things. Then you need to dedicate time, money and people to the search for the new products, services, methods and other offerings that could set your company apart from the pack.

Those who think that innovation costs too much will probably never invite innovation into their organisation — let alone implement it — and they are doomed to lose in the long run. This is because eventually innovation can lead to powerful cost savings, profitable new products and even a new competitive edge.

It is not possible to predict when innovation will appear, or who will introduce it. You cannot just pencil it into your datebook or assign specific people to have innovative breakthroughs. Instead, organisations need to find ways to encourage innovation in all their people, and support them whenever they have new ideas.

So, if the best-kept secret of today’s top businesses is how to create an atmosphere that promotes and cultivates innovation, where should we start?

I’d say leaders or managers need to be the ones in charge of inviting innovation. They need to let go of their own authority and allow people to share ideas and try new things. They must be open-minded and value new knowledge as well as give serious consideration to the new and different. In other words, they need to encourage others to think creatively since there will be a higher chance that people might have a creative breakthrough when they think creatively more often.

Another critical factor is that leaders must find valuable lessons from failed experiments. Although failure is discouraging, leaders who keep themselves and their people enthusiastic despite setbacks can eventually produce more innovative suggestions over time.

Simply put, innovative behaviour must be modelled from the very top to the individual contributor. Senior leaders cannot just mandate the change — they need to be the role models.

Apart from the role of leaders and managers, the organisational culture itself is critical. In practice, everyone — and I mean all team members regardless of title, seniority or position — must be encouraged to respect each other’s inputs in order to be able to dig deeper and to build on each other’s findings. That’s a sharp contrast to the approach we still see at too many businesses, where people try to dominate and score with the winning idea as a solo effort.

In this sense, I’d say that senior staff knowledge and experience can be vital and necessary to steer the project in the right direction in order to prevent the team from getting lost. At the same time, less experienced team members should also be able to share ideas and put forward alternative ways of seeing things, or raise issues that everyone else might have missed.

With more diversity from team members, greater inclusiveness, better team cohesion, higher levels of collaboration and increased creative confidence, innovation is likely to happen faster.

All in all, there are reasons why top companies such as Google, 3M and IBM value innovation so much. They are not hesitant to let their people freely raise ideas, take ownership of them and implement ambitious notions because they know it’s the road to innovation.

Arinya Talerngsri is Chief Capability Officer and Managing Director at SEAC (formerly APMGroup) Southeast Asia’s leading executive, leadership and innovation capability development centre. She can be reached by email at arinya_t@seasiacenter.com or www.linkedin.com/in/arinya-talerngsri-53b81aa

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First Published at BangkokPost