Innovation is infectious. Its roots lie in debate and contention and it flourishes in an environment that welcomes the challenging of assumptions, risk taking, and creativity.

That’s the focus of Chitra Anand’s new book, The Greenhouse Approach: Cultivating Intrapreneurship in Companies and Organizations, which re-imagines what corporations can and should be. The book also examines the psychology of businesses and challenges current ways of thinking that inhibit us from truly being creative, fearless and innovative.

Chitra Anand grew up in corporations. She has spent 20 plus years in the technology space including ten years at Telus and five years at Microsoft as their Chief Communications Officer. She is currently doing a doctorate on intrapreneurship and a deep dive, longitudinal study on intrapreneurship. Her research examines the traits of intrapreneurs, how they navigate organizations, and why they are the key drivers of innovation. She also studies shifts in technology, and how the way we communicate has created a massive change in consumer behavior.

Ahead of her speaking at Innov8rs Miami (20-21 February 2019), we sat down with Chitra to hear more about her book and her research.

Your book is called “The Greenhouse Approach” how did you get to this name?

One of the things that I’ve found quite interesting in my work is that all these companies have a whole bunch of things happening from within… but they weren’t the right combinations of things.

I started to think, what if these organizations could emulate a greenhouse? What I mean by that is: With the right conditions, the right mindset, the right guiding principles, and the right sort of infrastructure, what if an organization could start to flourish like a greenhouse?

I created that parallel and that comparison because I believe that the biggest opportunity and challenge that these large, complex organizations face is that there’s a lot of goodness happening but it’s not being applied in the right way.

So, if an organization is able to emulate a greenhouse and start applying those good things in the right way, whether it’s talent acquisition, guiding principles, funding methods, leadership, or culture – I believe that it can flourish.

This is especially important when you look at what’s happening with the world right now. With globalization we are highly competitive, and these big companies are being displaced by foreign businesses and startups.

As the marketplace is being disrupted, organizations need to look at the current functions and forms under which they operate because ultimately, they will need to reorganize in order to sustain themselves in the new economy.

At what point have you seen companies start to realize that it’s going to take something more substantial than they’d previously thought to implement actual change?

My hypothesis is, and always has been, that the solution to the problem is not in setting up incubators. The Greenhouse Approach is really about looking across the organization. In order for these companies to scale their innovation efforts, it needs to be groundswell from within.

My thinking has always been, if you want true experimentation, it can’t just happen in a think tank. The risk taking, challenging of current ways, and assuming of risks needs to happen throughout the organization.

A lot of companies are setting up “innovation hubs.” I’ve seen a lot of companies try these incubators and they’re spending a lot of money, but at the end of the day you have to really sit back and say, “What is it that we’re trying to achieve through these incubators?”

For example, there’s a very prominent bank in Canada who has spent over a hundred million dollars on an innovation factory, but they have not produced anything that new in the last three years. So you can physically set up the space for innovation but if you aren’t focused on output you aren’t going to get the results you want.

Organizations also need to be focused on talent. We know that the company with the best talent is going to win, but talent is becoming a big problem in the Gig Economy. People don’t need to go to work for large corporates in order to sustain themselves, so those organizations need to create an environment and a culture that’s going to attract great talent. That means free, flexible, fluid work environments. These people want creative freedom, they want to be able to test products and maybe even set up their own companies within the larger organizational infrastructure.

So, it’s not just about new products; it’s about new processes, attracting talent, utilizing new business models, new infrastructure, new ways of embracing social media, and new ways of connecting with clients. Ultimately, it is all of those things combined that will create unique opportunities for these organizations.

Obviously just having an innovation department alone isn’t enough. Who’s going to take ownership of all of this transformation?

That’s a great question and obviously it will be the culture and the fabric in which the company operates. The first part of my book talks about the ideas within organizational environments that need to change in order to set the foundation to drive these environments to be open to innovative thinking.

For example, most of the decisions we make in the boardroom or in businesses are based on our assumptions; preconceived ideas that may not even be true. This is, at least in part, because when you put yourself into a boardroom or on a tight timeline, making fast decisions creates the illusion of high efficiency.

One of the ways to get away from that is with “first principles thinking”, which is essentially, going back the raw data and the facts to question your own assumptions and question why you’re making a decision.

Think about all the ideas that may or may not have been passed simply because of inaccurate assumptions that we make as human beings. Elon Musk, for example, was told it was impossible to mass produce electric cars because it was too expensive. Rather than accept that assumption, he went back to the facts and found a way to make them cheaper.

Pushing that kind of thinking within these environments facilitates the necessary mindset shift to drive the right kinds of behavior, leading to breakthrough ideas and setting the groundwork for innovation to thrive.

At what level would this mindset shift need to occur on in order to be effective?

Well of course it needs to come at the leadership level. I’ve been an intrapreneur my whole career and I can honestly say with confidence that if I did not have the support of leadership that I would not have been able to achieve the things I have in my career.

It is only because leadership was challenging current structures, deviating from the norm, and assuming levels of risk that I have been able to achieve anything. If don’t have the support of the organization, aka leadership, it’s just not going to happen.

How much are leaders aware of this and even if they are aware of it how much are they actually willing to have the mental capacity to actually work on this?

That’s the million-dollar question, I suppose. We do have a leadership crisis. As human beings, there are a lot of things we struggle with in terms of ego, politics, humility, and vulnerability. You need all of those elements in order to empower and embrace people from within in order to help them realize ideas. It takes a major mindset shift in order for that to happen and it’s rare.

One of the things I talk about in my book is the danger of consensus thinking within organizations. In major corporations there is often a fear factor surrounding innovative thinking. People who deviate from the norm are cast as these outliers. I have a whole chapter where I talk about how it’s the minority of people who are actually the trailblazers and although we see the need for these people time and time again, throughout history, many organizations remain fixated on consensus thinking.

This absolutely stifles innovation. It is simply the laws of physics. You need a spark, you need contention, you need debate.

We have to build environments and infrastructures that are safe and foster debate because it is in debate where the innovation lies. It lies in the differences in perspectives, social constructs, and cultural backgrounds that spark people to debate and then come together to problem-solve.

If I’m this innovation team leader with a team of ten or fifteen people – what can I do to start cultivating?

You have to allow people the freedom and flexibility to be creative, to experiment, to allow some margin of error, to be curious. That involves the leader or the manager not just voicing their support but actually demonstrating it. I think an important aspect to that is leaders demonstrating their vulnerability. Leaders should share when and where they’ve made mistakes or challenge the norm and the current environment. This demonstrates their commitment and support to the team and you will start to see people behave differently.

As leaders, you need to foster an environment of trust. If there is a great idea, support it and do so openly. Once people see trust being fostered, they will start to collaborate more and that’s when new ideas are generated – it’s a domino effect.

What else do you think is critical to know as we all strive to make this happen?

Innovation is infectious. It is a difficult journey as intrapreneurs and people who are trying to be innovative and disrupt from within, but what I have found is that once you start to gain traction and people start to see the successes, they will also start to operate in ways that restructure the culture and that starts to create a movement from within.

I can speak from personal experiences: It’s difficult to break down barriers. It’s difficult to get the approvals. It’s difficult to break rules. However, once the output becomes apparent, people start to see the upside and the results which starts to create a community from within; then other people want to participate.

More and more, people want to have purpose in what they actually do and purpose means having impact. In order to allow people to really feel that and to have skin in the game, you have to evolve their roles from being employees to being stakeholders.

When you’re a stakeholder, you not only have skin in the game, you’re able to actually take your idea from ideation to execution.