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Earth shaking ideas can come to us at the most unassuming moments. In the shower, packed into a commuter train, in the middle of a conversation when our attention should be elsewhere. Sometimes, you try to remember that same idea an hour later and POOF, it’s gone. So how can we bring more of these moments into our lives? How can we foster and nurture a creative spark with our peers and build them into realities? Could the workplace be the hearth to inspire our spirit of innovation?

For decades companies have maintained market share by outsourcing innovation to external consultants and miss an opportunity to also ignite their internal creative capacities. It’s not that surprising that by 2027, 75% of S&P 500 firms will vanish from that list. When the consultant’s work is done, you might have a shiny new product and fancy website, but the resulting innovation vacuum can leave your team creatively paralyzed.

How can we integrate innovative process into our daily workflows, weekly all-hands and quarterly planning meetings? What does it take for a culture of innovation to thrive within our companies and what skill sets do people need to keep the fire burning?

First, realize that there is no quick fix to installing an innovation mindset at your company. It is more of a discipline and a practice than it is a commodity. By creating positive feedback loops, accountability structures and rewards to reinforce creative behavior, you can slowly transform a mindset that was rewarded for doing “more of the same” to one that is changing the game.

To see a culture of innovation come to life within your company, design for serendipity. One common workplace hack is the ‘collision station’, which act as hubs within the office where people literally run into each other, plug in and share an idea. We can build value by creating spaces for unexpected connection. But what is the operating system that animates our physical infrastructure? People are diverse in the ways they create, just as they are in their cultural and ethnic backgrounds. So what are the common skills necessary for your people to become the fire starters within your company? What skill sets allow innovation to thrive?

21st Century Skills that Ignite a Culture of Innovation

 Empathy: People matter most. Why design something if you haven’t deeply connected with the person who is using it? What pain point are you solving? What does it look and feel like? Five years ago, innovation at SAP manifested as a shiny programming language or the newest bot. Today, we host summits and hackathons with developers, customers, designers, sales people, managers… a spectrum of personalities that would make any good facilitator drool. This is how we create, this is the intersection when new narratives are illuminated by the complex human experiences of all of the stakeholders in the room. SAP’s CEO Bill McDermott continues to place ‘empathy’ at the top of the list for SAP’s cultural operating system.

“We are now a customer driven company. We have to care. And it only happens when you’re empathetic and intellectually curious at all times,” – Bill McDermott, SAP Global CEO

Vulnerability: A willingness to check your own assumptions, name your blind spots, and see the world with new eyes. Your ability to throw away your idea and start over again. To admit you may be wrong and that you don’t know the answer. Entertaining the possibility that your present operating system doesn’t serve your need. A willingness to embrace (or accept) change is a vulnerable moment.

Sitting in the unknown: The only thing constant in this world is change. How can you find comfort in the unknown? How can you hold a diverse range of competing and complimentary ideas at once, without immediately trying to name a solution? This skill requires a willingness to sit amongst the chaos of many personalities, ideas, hopes and fears without becoming paralyzed by their complexity.

Resilience: How might we support ourselves and our products to have multiple forms that support a critical function? When you’re walking into the eye of the storm, beaten back and pushed around, how can you listen to your gut as it tells you to take another step? Be willing to fail and fall on your face. Get back up, try again, and again. Do it with your peers, learn together, build together, and create the networks around you to empower your personal and collective resilience. Developing this grit opens up a world of possibilities outside of the realm of ideation expectations. The journey to resilience cracks you open, letting the light in.

It has been a journey for SAP to build up these muscles of innovation, and we still have a ways to go. We push people to get out of their day to day jobs (working on one product, one feature), participate in hackathons, get outside the lab, think about things as the customer would. Before doing anything, ask, “am I solving your problem?” Just ask. We allow time, space and flexibility for when innovation happens – we strive to allow it to live in all that we do. It’s not something that happens on Tuesdays – rather if it’s baked into the cultural operating system of the company, your people will pleasantly surprise you with what they are capable of building from the inside out.

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  1. Derek Klobucher

    As you mentioned, Kirsten, changing the culture is a slow process. But it’s also necessary so that the old culture doesn’t kill the new strategy.

    What are some good methods to keep everyone’s eye on the ball during such a lengthy evolution?

    (0) 

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