“Many organizations talk about the need to innovate but don’t know how or where to start, or whether they even have the skills and capabilities to generate ideas and make them work.

The big challenge is how to make innovation part of their organizational DNA & culture”.

So says Natalie Turner, Founder and CEO of The Entheo Network and author of Yes, You Can Innovate. She has helped organizations like CISCO Systems, Singapore Airlines and LEO Pharma Asia to build innovation systems, culture and capabilities, and generate new ideas to help them grow their teams and businesses. She is the inventor of the 6 ‘I’s® of Innovation, an end-to-end people centred approach to innovation that blends the principles of design thinking with organizational development.

To prepare for her Innov8rs Bangkok keynote and workshop, we sat down with Natalie to find out where organizations need to start when it comes to real employee-driven innovation, how well we’re doing so far, and how we can get better at it.

What are the fundamental starting points for an organization who wants to make innovation actually happen?

An organization must have a very clear answer to this question: What does it mean for us to be innovative? They need a common language around what innovation is and how to do it.

Innovation needs to be embedded as a core value and way of working, both at the grass roots level and at the level of innovation management. Here’s what that looks like: At the grass roots level, people are encouraged to be innovating in their day-to-day activities. At the management level there is a clear process for driving innovation across scope, so both radical and incremental innovations, and time horizon, so over the short, medium and long term. There needs to be proper pipeline management.

Innovation needs to be built into the processes, how the organization functions. It should be part of the HR cycle, how it recruits, develops, retains and rewards people, and the bureaucratic functions like finance, risk management, procurement, and so on.

People need to know where they can best contribute to the innovation journey. They need to be able to generate ideas that match market opportunities and then be able to drive them into implementation.

This often requires a team of people with different skills and mindsets working together. They also need to create different environments for each other to help move an idea through the innovation journey.

I recognized we needed a way to articulate the interrelationship between culture, process, mindset and skills. That’s one reason I invented the six 'I's, which are all interlocked with purpose and why we need to innovate. They are:

  • IDENTIFY with the mindset of CURIOSITY to spot opportunities by understanding trends and customer needs.
  • IGNITE ideas with the mindset of CREATIVITY by creating novel solutions.
  • INVESTIGATE with the mindset of CRITICAL thinking, by developing propositions, prototyping and testing.
  • INVEST with the mindset of COURAGE by creating business models and plans for investment.
  • IMPLEMENT with the mindset of COMMITMENT by bringing an idea to life and creating value.
  • IMPROVE with the mindset of being CLEVER by optimizing an idea into another area of opportunity.

Where are we on the scale of employee-driven innovation: from zero, where we’re only paying lip-service, to ten, where everyone in the organization is innovating for results?

Things are changing. In the past, I would have said we are a two or three. I think we are at a four or five now, but it’s patchy and unpredictable. There’s still a long way to go and it’s largely personality driven, rather than being built into the fabric of how an organization functions.

A lot of things get in the way of employee driven innovation. An organization can recruit exceptional talent across the innovation spectrum - not just creatives - and then systematically wear them out, whether this be through the way the organization is designed, the culture of the organization, or too many processes that don’t support innovation outcomes.

In my experience, many organizations train people but don't have the support function or culture to support the training outcomes. This results in frustration, or in pockets of enthusiasm around innovation which dwindle and die because of other organizational priorities.

Why aren’t we scoring higher?

It would help if organizations raise the bar of what it means to be innovative. My experience tells me that most people still equate innovation with being creative, and whilst this is important it’s only one aspect of the journey. They also equate it with technological development, and it is so much more.

Successful innovation requires far more discipline than we like to imagine. Once creative ideas that address real needs have been formed, the hard work of making it happen is required. There is a delicate balance between creativity and discipline - that’s why innovation is so difficult.

Often, the disciplined part of the process is seen as the naysayers trying to kill off ideas. If INVESTORS and IMPLEMENTERS were brought in to the innovation journey earlier, I think there would be a lot more success. Sadly, they are usually brought in later in the process so have no buy in to what is going on.

Because we confuse innovation and creativity, we don't always see some types of innovation as innovation. The truth is, there is probably more innovation going on then we realize. Where it goes wrong is we focus all our energy on one area, like IGNITE, or INVESTIGATE - then all that work gets dropped at the next point on the journey because we don't have the capacity or environment to process it properly.

How can we improve?

First and foremost, we improve by having an actual innovation strategy. What does that mean? It means we’re clear about why innovating will help us address our market challenges and evolve. We create a common language for innovating, so people know what it means to them and what it means to their organization and industry. We make sure that every employee in our organization identifies their strengths and the contribution they can offer.

We build-in the right processes, and cultural environments, that support innovation across each of the six 'I's , and have innovation management that holds the tension between the different stages, skills and mindsets. We reinforce what it means to be innovative through our HR processes, designing departments and teams to support - not inhibit - innovation.

And we support innovation with the right training, coaching and incentive structures.

Whirlpool is a good example: they tied innovation bonuses into the reward system of their top managers. What is measured is what is rewarded. If innovating is a nice-to-have, or seen as a sideline activity, it either won't happen, or will only happen by chance.

Any thoughts around innovation in the Asian context as compared to other parts of the world?

The pace of change in Asia right now is enormous. If we take Singapore as an example, 50 years ago it was a very very different place, full of Kampong fishing villages and street food vendors on every corner. Now it’s a city of glass and chrome, a global business hub.

We don't see this pace of change in, for example, Europe or North America. The general population is very used to a high-pace of change. Nation building has had a very important role in developing the skills of the population - they are the number one STEM educator in the world, and became so over a couple of decades in response to their move away from a manufacturing-based economy.

The Singapore Government knows that what worked in the past isn't working now. and there is a lot of investment in management and leadership development that can be more responsive, global, agile and adaptive. Innovation is Government-stimulated and they have a clear strategy.

That said, this is rare in Asia, and certainly in Europe and North America. Once we look beyond the start-up scene to larger legacy organizations, innovation as a core competence is still very new in Asian markets. There are huge opportunities for organizational training, as this is where the need usually starts before it matures into innovation management.

The rate of development varies market by market. I think the important thing is to diagnose what the system needs. Where is an organization in relation to its understanding of what it means to be innovative and why it’s important? What does it have in place to help support it? When we’re talking about innovation, what are we actually talking about? These are the fundamental first steps of a journey that will never really end.

Meet and work with Natalie during Innov8rs Bangkok - more info here