Innovation is not as simple as acting on a remarkable idea.

It is a complex process that is scientific at its core but one that can be developed over time.

As Sparkademy's Alan Cabello shared with us during Innov8rs Connect Unconference 2021, there are three basic dimensions to innovation: the individual, the team, and the context. They must work together simultaneously for our efforts to be effective. Every organization has a group of people who are very motivated and driven to innovate. You may be surprised however, that we are now able to measure how innovative a particular person can be by tracking their brain activity.

The Intersection of Neuroscience & Innovation

A group of successful entrepreneurs, top managers, and engineers were asked to perform different tasks whilst each of their brains was being scanned. Each person was measured on various functions, including attention control, working memory, planning & generatively, and cognitive reflection, which are the most important functions necessary for innovativeness. All these functions are related to the brain's neuroplastic parts, this means that the brain can be trained to perform highly while performing these functions.

The brain is a muscle, and like every other muscle, we can train it and stimulate it to perform at its highest function.

It’s a matter of someone applying themselves and “exercising” it versus being dormant; if a brain is trained to perform well in these functions, then we can develop higher innovative skills. However, it's important to note that some people are more strongly predisposed to develops these skills, and of course, the context plays a very significant role in this.

Measuring a change in mindset takes time. Just like how it's impossible to be perfectly fit the first day after going to the gym, it takes the brain time to adapt and change its thought processes. However, mapping the organization processes and running an entire team or organization through assessments paints a clearer picture of the people who are currently better equipped to spark innovation and transformation within an organization.

Every person doesn't need to be high on the innovative spectrum, yet it's essential for a balance. When there is a desire to change mindset and culture, the easiest way to achieve that is to start with the team members who are already innovative, empower them to instill change, and then get those people to start changing the context. Changing mindsets often involves unlearning, which is complicated because the context is still at a certain level, and sometimes there is no drive to change things from the current reality. So, just like working out in a gym, there must be action to show what is possible.

Contrary to popular belief, being innovative is not just about going out and exploring all of the time. It's about striking a balance between looking for new opportunities and then exploiting them and pushing hard into that once you sense the opportunity. This means it is crucial to be ambidextrous to balance exploitation (what we do) and exploration (exploring new thinking and looking at different opportunities).

This ability to switch between exploration and exploitation is ultimately what leads to innovativeness.

When talking about the teams' dimension, the focus right now goes to psychological safety. We are especially focusing on the work of Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson, who has been researching teams and psychological safety for decades and has developed a team learning model.

Edmondson’s team learning model has four main sections, team performance, team learning behavior, team beliefs, and context support.

For the team performance section to be successful, a team must be intentional to work on the proper things, and the team learning behavior section is reliant on this to ensure all those involved work together to receive feedback. Edmondson splits the team beliefs section into two measurements, team safety, and team efficacy, explaining that when a team is a safe space for all team members, then the members can truly trust each other, learn, grow, and ultimately practice innovation. All of these things are dependent upon the context support and is ultimately more important than the team leaders involved because if someone does not have the proper context, no matter how many people there are on a team, it will not work.

Among the various research into innovative organizations, one particularly striking thing is how persistent an organization is in its innovative practices. When it comes to innovation, it is essential to keep trying and not give up.

So now the question is, how are these dimensions measured?

The Measurability of Innovation

Over the last 20 to 30 years, innovativeness was measured with R&D expenditure on an individual level. The term “innovation” itself wasn't available in academic literature until the early '80s and '90s. The world must change the way innovativeness is measured, and R&D does not cut it anymore.

It's crucial to look at what a company is doing in terms of innovativeness in their context, how they consistently invest in this, and how they measure it. To measure if a company is continuously investing in one or several of these things over time, as a very high-level example, it's possible to measure the number of MVPs they produced over time. The clues can hide inside how well the company retains talent or if employees consistently leave for more appealing companies.

To measure the innovativeness in a team, we can look into Amy Edmondson's research a little bit more. She started her research by conducting surveys with different organizations globally. She would do these surveys in two dimensions. Firstly, the team would have to answer certain survey items. Then Edmondson would ask an external observer, someone not necessarily on the team but who has a relationship with the team, what they think about the team as a whole. One of the elements of this research that was particularly relevant and correlated with the innovative team was the psychological safety factor.

The elements of psychological safety are key to understanding if the team feels like they can achieve what they want to do and what can be considered innovativeness. They need to feel safe within the team to reach their full potential.

Now looking into the individuals, the team at Sparkademy has developed an assessment to specifically helps measure how innovative the person can be. To determine this, we focus on two key abilities or predictors. The first one is ambidexterity which is being able to switch between exploitation and exploration and secondly: how good is the individual at understanding human needs?

The assessment, called the Spark Check is specifically designed to measure these two predictors.

To measure the ambidexterity skill of people we put them to a test, which is more like a game than a test. It measures the individual capability to recognize a pattern and make decisions based on a pay-out system. This is actually based on a test called the gambling path developed over 34 years ago.

Then there’s the human needs side of the story. To measure this, we focus a lot on emotional intelligence. More specifically on can this individual identify emotions in other people. And secondly, after perceiving these emotions what do they do? What action do they take? Some people are excellent at perceiving, but very few genuinely feel comfortable communicating and discussing their emotions.

Ways to Let Innovation Grow in Any Team

Trust is the number one way to encourage innovation to grow within a team. A lack of trust builds individuality, and the issue is that everyone must be persistent. Suppose there is already a toxic environment where a member feels wholly misunderstood or bullied (whether true or untrue). In that case, it is already creating cancer that will grow throughout the team like wildfire.

If there is a great deal of distrust, there are two options to create change. Essentially, you can extract that member and move them out, or try to work it out in an organized, yet effective way. The team must return to a place where every member can work together efficiently and get to where trust can compact.

Innovation must be a top-down, bottom-up activity. Every member involved needs to believe in innovation for it to work on the day of the day. If everyone has the intention, it's essential to figure out how to make the stakeholders responsible, showcasing their dedication to innovation. Establishing KPIs for measuring helps accurately decide what the company needs to do and where they need to go.

Focusing on low-hanging fruit is essential when members are trapped in a particular context and are reluctant to believe in innovation. The first step in pulling someone out of their context is looking at the organization's white space and finding a quick win. Organizations are people, and it's always possible to find a bubble within the organization that is in the right time and place, and the faster these bubbles are noticed, the better the team leader. Upon discovering the bubbles, the contextual barrier can break down, ultimately allowing a team to see a future where innovation is involved.

Innovation is not “one size fits all”, but everyone can develop it. Therefore these three dimensions are so important, we need to have the right context, give the teams a supportive space and provide the individual with training and possibilities to self-develop.

Find out why skills such as creativity, leadership, and innovation are necessary and will become essential in the future during our upcoming live session with Alan Cabello, at 19 October, 22:00 SGT/16:00 CEST/10am EDT/7am PDT. We’ll discuss how these particular skills not only improve employee loyalty but also how they can give you a competitive advantage. Also, find out how to close the skills gap efficiently, spark a mindset change and get your teams ready. RSVP here