Tag: Innovation

Can a CEO Hinder Innovation?

Leaders define their organization.

That a CEO could hinder innovation seems counter-intuitive. Isn’t a CEO’s job to lead, to pioneer even when necessary? But depending on the personality and strategy of a CEO, innovation can be harder or easier. So what do you need to know about yourself as a leader, and the leaders you work with, to better innovate?

The Personalities of CEOs

An analysis from Innovation Leader finds there are four basic archetypes of CEOs: The Visionary, the Streamliner, the Cheerleader, and the Advocate. The good news is that all embrace certain forms of innovation while challenging others. For example, the Streamliner looks for innovation that cuts costs or makes the company more efficient but can struggle to see the value in a new approach to the industry or a bold step away from the norm of current products.

There are, of course, many different factors or approaches. Recently failed products, tightening budgets, a focus on the short term to bolster the business in the current quarter, a suddenly aggressive competitor; all of these things can play a part in how CEOs approach innovation. So, how should you approach innovation, looking at these archetypes and how you fit into them?

Changing Your Approach

The first step is to look at your past approach to innovation. As we said, each overall approach has benefits, to some degree, whether it’s offering clear and open support of innovation ideas or encouraging certain forms of innovation. But each also has drawbacks that, over time, will seem obvious. Have you encouraged innovation among the ranks, but focused your time and resources on other matters, like the Cheerleader does? Do you have a long view of innovation but tend to focus more on the short term, like the Visionary?

leading is tough. Innovation doesn’t have to be.

Next, consider how you can address these drawbacks. Every leader has a different set of circumstances to innovate with, so consider what makes your company, and the innovation you need, unique. Really, this has much to do with innovation itself. You need to look closely at your current processes, pull back and look at it from a global perspective for strengths and weaknesses, think through potential solutions to them, and then implement and refine those solutions. Bubble Wrap sat on the shelf for years as wallpaper and greenhouse insulation before somebody realized it solved a major problem in the shipping industry.

Keep in mind, there is no perfect innovator. We often hear about the brilliance of Steve Jobs, but nobody discusses the thousands of Apple Lisa computers he supposedly buried in Utah after it failed, or Apple’s ill-fated first foray into a phone that downloaded and played music, the Motorola ROKR. Taking multiple approaches to challenges is part of the innovation process. Not every approach will be ideal, or they wouldn’t be challenges.

What’s important is that you keep up the process both of innovation, and challenging yourself and your employees to keep improving how you innovate. Innovation is the fundamental building block of success, after all, and you need to be as fresh and smart in your approach as you are with innovation. Need help? Join our newsletter!

Think: the Second Step in Innovation

Think first, then act.

In the first step of innovation, we discussed observation, and how Galileo conceived of the pendulum clock years before it would ultimately be invented. But, of course, Galileo wasn’t the first to look at a swinging chandelier. What made the difference was his approach to what he saw, his method of thought.

Centuries later, another brilliant innovator, IBM’s Thomas Watson, became famously obsessed with thought. His one-word motto for the company was “THINK,” and you still find that motto in force at IBM today. He often went further: IBM’s collection of quotes has, among others, Watson’s argument to think first, then act:

“The trouble with every one of us is that we don’t think enough. We don’t get paid for working with our feet—we get paid for working with our heads. Feet can never compete with brains.” 

So what does it mean to think, especially when it comes to innovation?

Thought And Innovation

Watson’s approach to thought can really be summed up by a much older proverb: “Measure twice, cut once.” Watson saw the thought process, unsurprisingly, as a linear thing: He wanted his employees to consider what they were doing, step by step, and ask themselves why they were doing it. Mindlessly following commands was against the culture Watson wanted to build.

In other words, Watson’s idea of thinking is very much an active one. True thought involves critical consideration of everything, from the assumptions you’re working off of to even your own thought process. If you really step back and look at how you deal with day-to-day problems, you might find that you’ve picked a solution and keep going back to it because it’s worked in the past, even if there’s a better way that’s right there.

So, how do you encourage this, in your innovation strategy? Really it comes down to a simple question: Why?

The Power Of Why

We all have our reasons for why we do things, but we rarely unpack and consider those reasons, even when we should. Often one of the greatest roadblocks to innovation is that we don’t think through the entire process from the ground up. IBM was famous for demanding that employees constantly question their own assumptions, which was particularly crucial in an industry where advancements seen as science fiction in 1960 were old technology in 1965.

Approach matters.

“THINK,” to Watson, was a verb. It was something you did actively, not passively. Thought is not guided, it leads. If something is a certain way, why is it that way? Can it be reconfigured, deconstructed, rebuilt, reconsidered? If you see the consequences of a decision playing out a certain way, is that set in stone, or are you just assuming that’s the only way it could happen?

In other words, thinking is work. If it’s easy, it’s probably not thinking in the first place. But, as Watson said in the quote we cited at the beginning, that’s why we collect our salaries in the first place.

With Forethought

Thinking isn’t the beginning and end of innovation. It’s famously held in the military that no plan survives contact with the enemy, and this is as true of peaceful business as it is of violent warfare. But thought is where the rubber of innovation meets the road of making it a physical reality. Active, careful thinking will ensure that your innovation is more than just an idle idea.

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Observation: The First Step in Innovation

What do you see, in the world around you?

In 1602, Galileo Galilei noticed the swinging of a chandelier after it had been lit. It seemed that, regardless of what angle the chandelier swung, the period – that is, the time it took to complete a swing – remained constant, something he confirmed using his pulse to time it. Galileo theorized that this pendulum motion could be used to create more precise timepieces. It turns out that he was right. Even though he never built one in his lifetime, the pendulum is, indeed, a reliable measure of time.

This story underscores the importance of observation in innovation. Innovation doesn’t emerge out of a vacuum, but from observing the world around us. So, how can we better observe, and apply our observations to innovation strategy?

Becoming A Better Observer

This story of Galileo is, in of itself, a perfect summary of observation’s role in innovation. Galileo

  • noticed something,
  • formed a theory about it,
  • and confirmed that theory.

That theory served as the building block for a larger idea. And so it goes with observation.

Observation is the bedrock for innovation. It starts with raw data, be it the world around us, as in Galileo’s case, or with something as simple as a sales spreadsheet posing a riddle like “Why does one product sell but another barely makes a dent?” You, and those innovating with you, need to observe our world critically. If something is one way, why is it that way? Could it be another?

That said, it can be tough to toss theories out there. After all, you can observe all the data you want, think hard about it, and put together an intelligently considered theory that’s absolutely wrong. But here, again, Galileo is instructive.

Getting It Wrong To Get It Right

Observation is where innovation starts.

Ironically, Galileo turns out to have technically been wrong; the exact period of a pendulum will vary slightly. This wasn’t his fault. Today, we’d be able to prove it to him with the clocks cued to the decay of atoms. Our smartphones sync to show perfect time. We can explain the concepts of airflow and friction that he, and every other learned man of his time, didn’t yet understand. But, he was working with the tools and the information he had. It was later on his observations were refined into innovation.

This illustrates another aspect of observation. That Galileo got it wrong, technically, doesn’t matter. He got it right enough to deliver a meaningful observation upon which others could build. Without his observation of pendulums and their regularity, we wouldn’t have those atomic clocks. His theory may have been wrong in the details, but fundamentally, where it counted, he was correct.

Remember this as you observe. What matters isn’t that you nail everything in all the little technical details. That’s impossible unless you’re a savant or dealing with a very granular situation. What matters in observation is gathering data, applying theories, and imagining what could come out of those theories. When you do that, you’re on the road to innovation.

Building an innovation strategy can be tough. Make it easier: Join the IdeaScale community

Courage to Fail

Courage to FailOur attitude towards failure is an evolving concept and it also varies a lot depending on the country, the culture, and the individual. It can be very frightening. In fact, one study found that more people are afraid of failure than are afraid of spiders, ghosts, and being in an empty house.

However, an investigation into failure shows that it is those among us that aren’t afraid to fail who will experience the most success. So if you’re crowdsourcing new ideas from your employees, how do you communicate to them that failure is not something that they should fear? Well, you start by changing your organization’s attitude to failure. Here are three tips that might help you change that attitude:

  1. Celebrate Failures. When you’re celebrating new ideas and projects that succeeded, share the stage with ideas that didn’t make it to the final round but showed a lot of promise. Even better, highlight the ideas that made it all the way through but then failed to perform. That gets people to think more creatively about the types of ideas that they can share and simultaneously shows them that failed ideas won’t be penalized.
  2. Highlight Lessons Learned. Activate a culture of learning by always looking for new ways to build institutional knowledge. When failures are rebranded as a resource, it helps everyone to feel comfortable contributing new and creative (even risky) ideas.
  3. Don’t De-Risk Everything. Good organizations are built to minimize risk, but if you eliminate risk, you also eliminate the possibility for innovation. Make a few big bets every once in awhile. You don’t have to bet the farm, but trying something new and out there will show others that it’s okay to try things that are new and out there, as well.

To learn more about the importance of our attitude toward failure, download this infographic.

How does your organization respond to failure?

Do You Know How to Identify and Nurture Innovation Talent?

Nurture Innovation TalentMany companies today are experiencing an accelerated pace of change. As the world around us changes, how do successful companies drive change internally? After all, most of your workforce was probably hired for their functional skills, such as sales, accounting or production. Now we find that a new set of skills is necessary, and many companies aren’t sure how to identify and cultivate these skills.

Here are some common approaches to this problem:

Look for Creative Employees Creativity is most definitely a component of innovation, but only one component. It turns out there are seven other skills that drive innovation business results. Mistaking creativity for innovation has two consequences:

  1. When we overly glorify creativity, we minimize the importance of the other seven skills in the innovation process.
  2. We may over-look employees with the other equally essential innovation skills, making innovation a very exclusive club indeed.

These consequences put innovation at greater risk of failure.

Try to Make Everyone Innovative On the other hand, there is a precious belief out there that we can all be innovative. In our observation, this belief can create a certain tension, a sense of dread, even anger, among those who are not wired for change.  One CINO reported that she was asked, “When is all of this innovation stuff going to be over?” We all have seen the way such resistors can sabotage innovation efforts. According to Swarm research, about half of humanity really prefers that things stay the same. Why not let them focus on maintaining the current business and continuous improvement? They will be much happier.

Assume Diverse Teams are Strong Teams In 30 years of research on innovation teams, a slight correlation was found between diversity and innovation team results. But not all diversity. Diverse functional skills do help teams develop holistic innovations and de-risk them from many perspectives. But a functionally diverse team with weak coverage of the 8 innovation skills will still struggle. These are the 8 instrinsic skills required for success in innovation.

Now companies have the tools to identify innovation talent in their workforce. We can identify incremental to disruptive talent and martial it where needed. We can drill down to the 8 skills correlated with business results, and the 26 sub-clusters to diagnose teams, and build a culture of innovation on data, not guesswork.

To learn more about identifying and nurturing innovation talent, download the infographic here.


This is a guest post authored by Suzan Briganti, CEO and Founder of Swarm Vision. Suzan brings 25 years of experience in research, strategy and innovation. Suzan has patents pending in innovation software. She has grown Swarm Vision from a garage start-up to a trusted solution provider to global Fortune 500 clients. Suzan leads Swarm Vision with a focus on building great products and teams. Suzan has an MBA summa cum laude from Boston University and a design degree from Italy.

Customers We Love

Customers We Love

One of the best things about working at IdeaScale is the variety of customers, use cases, and success stories that you hear about. But recently, our work with the Commission for Environmental Cooperation reminded us of some of our favorite types of customers. Here are some of the reasons that CEC embodies these qualities.

Socially-Responsible. The Commission for Environmental Cooperation fosters conservation, protection and enhancement of the North American environment for the benefit of present and future generations. We feel really gratified when customers care about making the world a better place. That’s why we’ve loved working with customers like the Department of Energy’s Sunshot initiative and the DREAMS Challenge.

Creative. CEC didn’t limit their outreach to the standard playbook. In addition to press releases, videos, emails, and social media promotion, they also placed phone calls to universities and innovation hubs to garner interest. That’s why we’re excited by companies that find new ways to connect, evaluate, and nurture great ideas.

Forward Thinking. The winners of the CEC innovation challenge had some truly novel ideas like using food waste to create high protein foods and convert plastic into sustainable concrete. Without idea management solutions, these ideas sometimes go unsaid and undiscovered and they make the team at IdeaScale truly excited when those dreams get realized.

Great Networkers. There were multiple opportunities to connect with the CEC challenge, including an in-person mentoring part of the process.  Teams that combine online and offline connection generally have the richest sets of results. That’s why Scentsy always invites engagement at their annual event and Dick’s Sporting Goods had an in-person component as part of their launch.

Don’t get me wrong: we love all our customers and most of them are great at all these things. But it’s really awesome to see one story encapsulate some of those values that define our work.

To learn more about the CEC Youth Innovation Challenge, download the case study here.

Understanding the Source of Employee Innovation

Boredom is one of those facets of life that consistently amaze. How can any person be bored when there is so much around us that stimulates our intellect and inspires our awe? And why do we continuously and mindlessly scroll through television channels and facebook feeds instead of focusing our energy on creating something of beauty or value?

Boredom persists. In the workplace, we call this phenomenon, disengagement. All managers dread this and go to great lengths to improve engagement in the workplace. Whether it’s motivating staff, reaching customers, or simply having a conversation, employers want engaging interactions. They crave opinions and other forms of employee feedback, especially when those choice pieces of feedback help to directly further company goals.

The dilemma is, how do managers create engagement? Employees can’t be beaten with sticks (you can try but your HR team will likely frown upon it). You can’t yell at people to not be bored or to focus more.

No, the secret to employee engagement is curiosity and challenge. When people are challenged, their minds will naturally start formulating solutions. We call this, creativity. Marketing people call it, innovation. What follows are a few pieces of advice to encourage innovation (or creativity) from your employees.

Engagement Powers Activate!

Each day, we are flooded with information and stimuli. Take, for example, that little number in the corner of your inbox that numbers emails in the thousands or tens of thousands. Those are pieces of information that we have to analyze, prioritize and process. Our brains sort this information into two buckets — interesting and unworthy.

We actually have a dedicated neural network that manages this process which is called, The Reticular Activating System (RAS).  The RAS has two main functions; 1) highlighting relevant information in real time, and 2) stimulating pattern recognition to fuel innovative thinking.

In terms of our biology, the RAS monitors our shift between rest and wakefulness. Functionally, as it applies to how we communicate and perform throughout the day, the RAS determines whether we should tune stimuli out or tune them in.

Recognizing how the RAS functions provides an opportunity to improve engagement in the workplace. It can help us determine how we communicate and how often. Should we send someone thirty emails or have a ten minute conversation?

Are people falling asleep in meetings? If they look disengaged or bored, they are tuning you out. That means it’s time to change the content or format of your meeting. When people are engaged, they are attentive and responsive in meetings. They inspired to be more creative in their tasks and find new ways to accomplish their goals.

Reinforcing Engagement

Useful information activates the RAS to pay attention. When new or interesting information is in front of us, we focus. When that moment passes in a meeting, and we are told information that is irrelevant or that we already know, our RAS prompts us to disengage.

The best way to engage employees is to give them something that inspires curiosity. Being told a statement requires no thought on the part of the person to whom information is being conveyed. Being asked a question, though, prompts us to think about the answer.

The more questions we ask others, the more that they feel engaged – and that engagement persists over time as long as the questions remain pertinent. A question becomes part of our subconscious, and as time goes on, we are drawn to information that relates to what we were asked.

Leading Staff to Innovate

People managers can use the Reticular Activating Systems of their employees to engage staff in positive directions for the company. But do people always view the company’s success as their own success? How can you keep your staff focused and have them care about outcomes?

One way is to engage your staff by enrolling them in creating their own personal quarterly objectives that are tied to the quarterly objectives of the team and the company.

Another way to engage your staff is to move them away from a focus on individual success and towards a focus on success for the team. You can ask them what can be done to improve a situation and encourage them to crowdsource ideas from the rest of the staff. People who are challenged and curious and who are working towards a collective goal are more likely to innovate, instead of just passively doing their jobs.

Finally, let them know that their ideas have value through consistent recognition and reward.

Companies can provide personal incentives (a bonus or recognition of a job well done) to motivate individual participation. Employees learn that contributing to the company’s success will produce personal success for them as well.

Low employee engagement continues to baffle Human Resource professionals, middle managers, and company leaders the world over. But the solution is really not that complicated. Pay attention to employees and notice when they tune out and when they tune in. Then ask questions to keep them curious and challenge them so that their natural propensity towards innovation remains activated.

This blog is a guest post by David Mizne, Content Strategist of 15five

4 Ways to Promote Innovation Without Crowdsourcing

The crowd you source from doesn’t have to be outside the company.

Crowdsourcing is just one facet of innovation strategy. For some, it may not be the most workable. Perhaps there are legal concerns that make it impossible. Maybe your industry is so specialized you just don’t have that big a crowd to source from. Or perhaps there’s just institutional skepticism to deal with. So, if crowdsourcing doesn’t work for your specific issue, here’s how to bolster innovation without it.

Look Internally

Clearer, more open lines of communication all up and down your company is important in a number of contexts, but particularly when it comes to innovation. Members of your team should be able to put a problem out there in the company for everyone, as much as possible, to consider. Fresh eyes are useful for any problem, no matter what it is, and just as important, it involves stakeholders across the board. They’ll be able to spot problems, offer suggestions, or just give a different perspective that’s useful and that may ensure, as your work comes closer to release, a smoother, simpler rollout.

Listen To Your Customers

Any company worth its salt has a good relationship with its customers. Customers always have ideas and suggestions. They might ask if there’s a feature in the works, or say they’d love to use your product elsewhere in their business, except for one thing. Ask your sales team about what they’re hearing, and take a look at what’s workable.

Similarly, understand how your customers are using your products. The micro plane is a great example. They’re common in the kitchen now, but ten years ago, you could only find them in hardware stores. They were designed to grind down hardwood and metal. You can still use them for that, of course, but micro plane manufacturers quickly discovered home cooks were using their rasps as more effective, precise graters, so they began putting their products in kitchen stores. Learn how your product is actually used, not just how you intended it to be used when pursuing new ideas.

Tap your company’s internal genius.

Encourage Internal Experiments

Innovation is a situation where we only hear about the successes. Everybody likes to talk about the iPhone, but nobody mentions the decades of work Apple put into portable, connected computing, from the Apple Newton to a landline with a liquid crystal screen that was basically a proto-iPhone. There needs to be room in your organization to experiment, to engage in small projects, and test out ideas. For every great invention from a brilliant inventor, there are dozens of others that fail miserably, but they often build upon those failures to achieve their successes.

Follow The Competition

There are plenty of ways to legally and ethically keep an eye out for what your competitors are developing. Pay attention to their press releases, who they’re hiring, and what areas of your market they’re penetrating. Don’t copy their moves. Rather, ask yourself why those moves are happening and what they might say about the overall direction of your industry. That will point you toward new ideas and ways to upgrade and innovate.

Innovation is a process driven by every member of a company. Crowdsourcing can be incredibly useful to your innovation process, but it should be just one aspect of it. To get started with your innovation strategy, join the IdeaScale community.

Walmart: How an Innovator in Arkansas Continues to Change our World


walmart as innovatorIn the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, an unlikely corporation spearheaded the relief effort. Walmart, long maligned as a junky department store, pulled off a stunning logistical feat, getting 100,000 meals, 1,500 truckloads of supplies, and jobs for every displaced worker to the site with a speed that outmatched even the government. It was a reminder of what many who had been paying attention already knew: Walmart is, in many under-appreciated ways, a powerful innovator.

Walmart’s Past Of Innovation

Walmart has always been innovative. Sam Walton, the founder, pioneered the idea of using lower-cost suppliers and passing the savings onto the consumer, making up the difference in volume. It seems simple, now, but before Walton came along, products were marked up that same amount all throughout the chain, making things particularly expensive in rural areas. In the ’70s, Walton used small private aircraft to scout out new locations for his stores. Later the company would buy aircraft second-hand to fly managers out to stores.

In 1987, Walmart completed what was at the time the world’s largest private satellite network, which linked all its stores with two-way voice communications. Throughout the ’90s, as it expanded, Walmart pioneered the global logistics that underpin most retail operations today. In 2005, the company’s CEO decided to set the company on a path to becoming completely green, with no waste and the stores running on renewable power. By 2015, it led corporate America in solar capacity and is branching out into energy storage. You may well be buying your solar power from Walmart without knowing it.

Even today, it is innovating. Part of this is inherent in Walmart’s design. The company is so enormous, it makes more sense to build custom solutions than it does to buy “off-the-rack” tech. But some of it is the company showing a degree of flexibility you simply wouldn’t expect from “Wally World.”

Walmart’s Present And Future Of Innovation

Walmart has a trick up its sleeve with mobile payments. If you sign up for a store-branded credit card and use Walmart’s mobile payment app, you get the card and its benefit immediately. Walmart has become an incubator of startup retail technology, holding summits to find the best of the tech available and adapt it to their stores.

Other ideas are more subtle in their design. While headlines about the death of retail fill major newspapers, Walmart has been one of the few retailers to ask themselves why shoppers are moving away from brick and mortar and has experimented with new store layouts that put products more closely associated with each other in one place. Instead of pushing a cart from the clothing section to shoes to the baby aisle, it’s all in one place to get the trip over faster, and Walmart’s Scan & Go tech means you can put in all the barcodes, weigh the produce, get the total, and pay without having to wait in line.

Walmart labors under no illusions about the tough road brick-and-mortar retail is facing. If it had been, Wall Street’s punishing the company with a ten percent drop in value over an earnings decrease, not even an actual loss, warned it. But, unlike many companies, Walmart assumes the churn of innovation is just the cost of doing business. The innovative spirit of Sam Walton still lingers as the company forges ahead.

Want to be more like Walmart? Launch an IdeaScale community.

4 Powerful TED Talks on Innovation

TED Talks are great for lifelong learning.

Where do you get the best insight on innovation? For many of us, it’s the TED Talk. These lectures, from experts across the world, offer some valuable insight into how to innovate, and how the ways we innovate are changing. Here are four, in particular, any innovation-minded leader should consider watching.

Don Tapscott: Four Principles For The Open World

Tapscott, who studied the effect of technology on business and society, notes in this talk there are young adults who’ve never known the world without the internet. Tapscott explains that the world is “opening” in the sense that innovation is coming from unexpected places and we’re building more ideas from that openness, which he defines in four different ways:

  1. open-mindedness
  2. transparency
  3. sharing
  4. empowerment.

Tapscott argues that these four definitions interconnect to create the best innovation, and offers additional food for thought for innovators and companies alike.


“Companies no longer need a five-year-plan, just a goal and a willingness to get there.”


Clay Shirky: Institutions Vs. Collaboration

We all know it’s tougher to be nimble, the bigger an organization gets. But why? Clay Shirky, who spent years studying the social effects of the internet, argues it’s inherent in the model of large institutions. He presents a new way of thinking about cooperation in an institutional context; that, because the cost of communicating has dropped so low, institutions now need to make collaboration an essential part of how they run so that cooperation is a natural result of how the institution operates. Shirky argues that communication has advanced enough that companies no longer need a five-year-plan, just a goal and a willingness to get there.

What’s the future of innovation?

Yochai Benkler: The New Open-Source Economics

Benkler has an intimidating resume even by TED standards: He’s the Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies and a faculty co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard. That makes Benkler’s talk particularly fascinating as he views information through the lens of economic theory.

Benkler points out that where, before, the distribution of information was industrial, operated by newspapers and broadcasters who had the money to invest in the network, now information is radically distributed; it is produced and distributed by individuals for the cost of almost nothing. He argues that this has created a new type of economy, driven by the need to feel like we’re contributing to the world, that we develop a form of social currency by creating and sharing information and ideas.

In short, Benkler is arguing that more and more, open-source, not just in software, but in everything, is likely the future and that innovation will need to draw from this well more and more.

Howard Rheingold: The New Power Of Collaboration

Finally, longtime social critic Rheingold offers a unique perspective on how our shifting communications networks are rendering the normal business model of survival of the fittest, not so much obsolete as simply an option. Rheingold points out that no society has grown by relentlessly fighting with each other. There has to be at least some degree of cooperation. He argues that as technology has torn down the barriers to communication, that the degree of cooperation is becoming more important, especially for thorny problems with no clear market solution.

TED Talks are always useful for inspiration. If you innovate and need some inspiration, it’s worth picking one or two watch and consider. For more ideas on how to innovate, join the IdeaScale community.