I recently spoke in a private event. A company created an internal initiative called The Innovation Week, and they wanted to ensure that the mindset of innovation kept going for the rest of the year. They hired us to give a speech on the matter. Here is a summary of our conference.

Soft skills at the service of innovation

Innovation is not a goal. It’s difficult to measure. “Our level of innovation has increased by 39% this quarter”, that does not exist. While teams can be dedicated to innovation, such as teams of intrapreneurs, for instance, it is also not an expertise you can find on a resume. There is no certificate in innovation, as far as I know.

Innovation is a mindset. It’s a set of reflexes that can be leveraged, using our hard skills, which is common practice, and our soft skills, which is a little less common. What I mean is that we often have the technical expertise to innovate, but not always the mental reflexes to stimulate innovation. There are technological tools for tangible innovations, we use them every day. There are also other tools – both practical and conceptual – to foster an innovation mindset.

Knowing this, we can say that innovation is a culture, or at least requires a certain culture to happen. We have identified 4 key points that are necessary to foster of an innovation mindset that will last over time: agency, intention-based leadership, our power of influence, and the ability to change intangible ideas into tangible projects by experimenting.

A culture that favors agency

Agency is one’s ability to deliberately affect their environment. Basically, it’s our power to act, to voluntary influence our surroundings. When people decide to wash the dishes because there are too many dirty dishes in their sink, they are being agentive. They take deliberate action to improve their environment. It’s an innate behavior in humans. However, the workplace is one of the only places where this natural parameter is programmed to be disabled by default. At work, we ask permission to take action.

Agency is not the same as empowerment. Empowerment has its limits and shows several differences with agency.

  • Empowerment is a permission given by another person of higher hierarchical rank. Agency is innate, it is a mindset everybody is capable of, and it is deliberate.
  • Empowerment can be withdrawn by your superior, by senior management, and anyone in between. Agency being a mindset, is permanent and can not be removed.
  • Empowerment perpetuates the status of followers. Agency allows the creation of new leaders.
  • Empowerment works as long as we respect the structure in place. Agency works as long as there is a will.

For more information on the subject, I wrote an article entitled Empowerment Is Not Enough, Go For Agency Instead. And as a bonus, I include here the infographic I created for the comparison above.

How To Foster A Mindset of Innovation In Organizations

A culture of intention-based leadership and leader-leader relationships

People behave according to the way they are treated. Have you ever heard a manager yell “This is a real kindergarten here!”? I guarantee you that this guy treats his peers like preschool kids.

David Marquet, from the US Navy, has tried the opposite. He had just received his rank of captain for the submarine USS Sante Fe. He had to deal with the worst crew of the US Navy. He stopped giving orders, and began telling his crew what he intended to do, and then let them decide how best to get there. This is called intentional leadership. In doing so, not only did he stop treating his peers as soldiers or executants, but he began to consider their expertise, their collective intelligence, and their better judgment. He stopped treating them like followers and began treating them like leaders.

In the end, his crew has collected the highest score of all armies combined in history. On average, in a submarine with a crew of 30, about 1 or 2 sailors eventually become captain. In the crew of Captain Marquet, 9 people became captains. Other captains began visiting her submarine to learn how to achieve such an accomplishment. This guy has managed to create a factory with leaders in a nuclear submarine, nothing less. This is the story I prefer to tell the most, having tried it myself in business, with very impressive results. I also wrote an article on the subject, titled The Colossal Impact of Leader-Leader Relationships.

Note that leader-leader relationships do not only go from top to bottom but also from bottom to top and horizontally. We can treat our boss the way we would like him to behave, and the same goes for co-workers.

A culture that leads people to develop their influence

Not everyone knows how to ask for something in a proper manner. In 16 years, my son will probably ask me for permission to use my car this way “Hey pops, give me the keys to your car”, and it will be with great pleasure that I will refuse him as a matter of principle because that is not a way to ask for something.

So my colleagues and I have devised a process in 3 simple steps that we like to call “How to convince anyone of anything“. This is often scary to managers, and in the end, they end up thanking us because it will save them 1 to 2 days of work a week.

If one has to innovate, one must be able to explain why he would do it. A company will not fund all the ideas that come to people’s mind. In fact, most companies will not be interested in people’s ideas until they can attach a dollar sign to it. So let’s see how we can improve that. It’s good for both managers and employees. There are 3 steps

1. Make sure your idea fits into their agenda

Everyone has an agenda, especially high-ranking people in businesses. They have goals to achieve, aspirations, and KPIs. They also have a gun to their head (figuratively speaking) that is brandished by someone higher than them. If you want to convince them of something, you will need to empathize and try to understand what THEY need to succeed. If you offer them something diametrically opposed to where they are going, it is almost guaranteed that you will have a no. So, basically, you have to see how the idea you are trying to sell helps your manager succeed.

2. Do the work for them

I know I know. It means having to work to get what you want. What we mean here is: give them all the information they need to make the right decision. If they do not have the information, they can not make that decision. They have things to do, they are busy, and have a gun to their head. Finding information to support your request is at the bottom of their to-do list.

There is plenty of information you can provide: costs, return on investment (tangible, like money or time saved, or less tangible, like other benefits such as increased retention, engagement, etc.), comparisons with what the competition does, etc.

A quick and efficient way to get this information is to fill out a Business Model Canvas. Here is a simplified version that we have created to gather important data when it comes to selling ideas. It takes 30 minutes to complete, you can do it with your colleagues, and it allows you to ask yourself the right questions, especially those we often forget.

How To Foster A Mindset of Innovation In Organizations

Problem: What problem are you trying to fix?
Why? : Why does this problem need to be fixed?
Customer segment: For whom do you solve the problem? Who will this solution affect? (Customers, other departments, other teams, users)
Distribution channels: By what means will you set up your solution, communicate its value?
Solution: A summary of the solution you propose
Cost Structure: What will be the costs? What will cost what?
Key indicators: What should be measured to determine if the idea is successful? (Ex: Number of visits, number of users, traffic, customer satisfaction)
Return on Investment: A projection of the benefits and you expect your idea to generate. (Ex: Increased customer satisfaction, increased sales, increased revenue by 3% to 6%, reduced workload, save 1 hour per day for employees).

Basically, when trying to convince someone of your idea, make sure that the only thing they have to do is accept and sign. Do not give them the burden of having to do the work for you. And even if your manager needs approval from above, you’ll have given him all the arguments he needs to convince his own boss.


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Olivier Fortier
OLIVIER Fortier is first and foremost a believer in human beings. Owner of the blog Primos Populi -- which is Latin for People First -- his focus is to find innovative ways to bring back (and keep) people at the core of businesses, and ensure they can thrive. A manager, agilist, servant leader, facilitator, and former Scrum Master, all of these interesting titles and roles represent only the means to achieve what he truly believes in: cultivating people's awesomeness. His favorite things to reflect on are leader-leader relationships, psychological safety and the right to fail, career and personal development, humanity in recruitment, and how to lower the center of gravity of decision-making processes. Considering that businesses wouldn't exist without people, can one imagine how powerful it would be if all employees wholeheartedly wanted to be in their organizations, and wanted to do what they do? This is the work world Olivier wants to live in, and the goal he set for himself.
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