Does your organization innovate by crisis or by design?

Posted on June 14, 2019
Does your organization innovate by crisis or by design?

Innovation is a discipline – just like strategy, planning or budgeting – and like all disciplines, sustained innovation requires an understanding of how it works and what methods you can use to achieve it.

By Lee-Anne McAlear

Lee-Anne McAlear portraitThe power of tapping into other people’s creativity and channeling it into a methodical process can be learned but it’s also important to link the mission to organizational structure and the right processes and reward systems.

Creativity can be described as the use of imagination to create something new, unique or unexpected; innovation, on the other hand, can be described as creativity with purpose or applied creativity that delivers new value.

Organizations innovate all the time, but they do not accord the innovation process the sort of thoughtful, sustained attention it merits. Typically, innovation happens in one of two ways: Either innovation intrudes itself in response to a crisis or some individual (or small group of individuals) champions a specific innovation. In either instance, the benefits of the innovation are useful but limited. Once the crisis has passed or certain individuals responsible for the innovation have moved on, the organization is left with no lasting capacity for ongoing innovation.

The challenge is to move from a culture of “innovation by accident” to one in which a sustained organizational commitment to innovation is baked into the organization’s DNA.

The challenges facing organizations are increasingly complex – changing demographics, an uncertain economic climate, increased client expectations, rapidly changing technologies and limited available resources are but a few.  In their paper on dealing with complexity, Dr. Sholom Glouberman and Dr. Brenda Zimmerman address the difference between complicated and complex challenges and capture the key insight that analysis, planning and co-ordination are not enough when dealing with complexity. Creativity and innovation are essential.

This understanding is echoed in the World Economic Forum’s 2018 The Future of Jobs Report that captured the trending in demand for skills into 2022.  The top three were analytical thinking and innovation, active learning and creativity and originality.

Best Practices in Embedding Innovation

With this in mind, organizations have been very busy embedding creative practices and innovative processes in their organizations. Google, for example, has embedded Nine Principles of Innovation which include: Innovation comes from everywhere (everyone is expected to use their creativity), focus on the user (they have a design-thinking methodology) and think 10x not 10% (they concentrate on disruptive innovation). These are the key principles which guide everyone’s creative contributions.

Pfizer Health Care took a two-pronged approach to incorporating innovation into their culture. They a) identified strategic objectives that required innovation and b) used a multi-leveled approach to training their people in creative techniques and an innovation process. Different employees at different levels received different intensities of training. Every employee, for example, got ‘white belt’ training, which was training in creative techniques. Managers were ‘green belt’ trained and were taught both creative techniques and the steps in an innovation process, so that they could understand when and how to apply innovation. Some key leaders were given ‘black belt’ training that built their capacity to lead innovation. This program was so successful that Johnson and Johnson bought Pfizer Health Care and incorporated their approach and learning.

GE has a program called “FastWorks” that uses a similar innovation approach of training people in a rigorous process of customer discovery, further understanding of what users value and then testing and learning to create solutions.

In an organization like Proctor and Gamble, according to Bruce Brown, CTO, their innovation strategy consists of focusing on the user “Everything we do starts and ends with the consumer”. A.G Lafley, the most successful CEO in their history said, “Companies need to see innovation not as something special that only special people can do, but as something that can become routine and methodical, taking advantage of the capabilities of every employee.”

An Inclusive Innovation Approach

A McKinsey Poll in 2017 captured that while 84% of leaders across North America say innovation is a high priority, 94% are dissatisfied with their innovation performance. There are many reasons for this. A Globe and Mail Innovation Survey of 350 senior leaders across Canada also captured some critical Canadian information. One element was that 37% of Canadian leaders said that they did not understand innovation and the second was that fewer than 22% of Canadian organizations had an established Innovation Process.

The challenge is to move from an ad hoc experience of innovation to a systematic approach that takes advantage of the creativity of every employee in the organization.


Lee-Anne McAlear is co-program director of the Schulich  Executive Education Centre’s Masters Certificate in Innovation Leadership (starting Sept. 30, 2019). For more information, visit the program web page.