In today’s unpredictable, ever-changing business environment, innovation is widely viewed as a critical core competency and determinant of long-term growth and sustainability. In recent years, many organizations have focused on building component infrastructure like accelerators, incubators, and corporate VCs. There has also been increased attention to processes, tools and metrics. These things are certainly important, but innovation capability is also highly correlated with a less easily quantifiable measure around employee engagement, which is in turn a reflection of organizational culture.
Qualities like trust, transparency and engagement are vital indicators of a healthy culture. Employees that are meaningfully engaged are a rich source of insight and active contribution. They are invested in the process of making things better and creating new value. In other words, engaged employees are a key element of innovation capability.
Another key element of innovation capability is diversity of view, voice and experience. The Northern California Human Resources Association (NCHRA), one of the nation’s largest HR associations, recently conducted a pulse survey with Waggl, a technology company that allows organizations to crowdsource feedback and align on action. The pulse was sent to thousands of HR professionals from February 3-March 8, 2017, including the attendees of the HR West 2017 conference at the Oakland Convention Center March 6-8, 2017. An overwhelming 96% percent responded that they believe cultivating diversity in the workplace is essential for driving innovation. Responses were relatively consistent across various demographics including age, gender, region, and size of organization. In addition, 71% percent of the participants said that they feel their organization is strongly committed to fostering diversity. Among respondents under the ages of 31, 100% felt that diversity is essential and believed that their organizations are strongly committed to fostering it.
In this pulse, HR West and Waggl also posed the question, “What is the biggest advantage of building a diverse workforce?” then distilled crowdsourced responses into a ranked list. The top 3 answers were:
1. “With a diverse workforce (age, gender, ethnicity, ability, etc.) one brings together a multitude of thoughts, ideas, experience levels that has a greater potential to drive innovation, and promote constructive debate to move an organization forward.”
2. “Having multiple perspectives encourages management to see things differently, and can help enormously with problem-solving. It also helps us to avoid ‘group think.’”. “It takes diverse thoughts & opinions to create exceptional products & services but more importantly it takes a diverse & inclusive workforce to build the foundational values of trust & respect which are the bedrocks of amazing and enduring cultures.”
Greg Morton, CEO, NCHRA, commented on these results, “Despite the current politics of borders and immigration, it is generally accepted that companies benefit from cultivating a diverse workforce, but it can be difficult to measure or quantify the impact of diversity on an organization’s ability to innovate. However, as this pulse indicates, we’ve all witnessed cases in which diversity has directly driven innovation by creating an environment where ‘out of the box’ ideas are heard and encouraged. We’ve also seen situations where, without sufficient knowledge or training about culture diversity, managers can inadvertently fail to cultivate trust and respect in the workplace without even being aware of the consequences. It appears organizations that continue to actively commit to cultivating ‘cultural intelligence’ will be generally better equipped to innovate.”
This echoes a groundswell of discussion by leaders around purposefully engaging and motivating talent toward organization-wide innovation goals. Cultivating “cultural intelligence” requires the development of innovation infrastructure and processes, but it also requires empowering all employees to spot gaps and opportunities, suggest ideas and contribute to building something new or better. This is the human side of innovation that is less easy to measure but arguably the single greatest differentiator between organizations that ‘do’ innovation with varying degrees of success vs. those that ‘are’ innovative.
In other words, truly diverse organizations go beyond data and tools to inspire, empower and activate their workforces at a deeper level. Every voice matters and every moment matters – there are no artificial boundaries or expectations around where or how insight-led innovation will occur. This is the basis of lasting growth and sustained competitive advantage.
About the Author: Alex Kinnebrew is a senior business leader with over 12 years of experience in strategy, innovation and systems design. Currently she leads strategy for Waggl, a fast-growing employee engagement platform that enables focused, actionable communication on enterprise topics like culture, events, change, strategy, innovation and talent. Previously, Alex designed and launched a global innovation lab network at Citi, bringing a strong lateral innovation focus to the bank’s diverse businesses. Prior to Citi, she directed corporate innovation strategy and capability building initiatives in healthcare, consumer goods, and education at Monitor Doblin (now Deloitte). She began her career at Gensler Architecture and pioneered a (now thriving) design strategy group charged with aligning business objectives and workplace design.