Shantha-May

Dr. Shantha Mohan

"Creativity is seeing what others see and thinking what no one else ever thought."

- Albert Einstein

Dr. Stuart Evans, Distinguished Services Professor at Carnegie Mellon Integrated Innovation Institute, classifies innovations as FADForced, Accidental, and Deliberate. 

During the pandemic, enterprises were forced to innovate how they do business or face death. 

History is full of accidental innovations such as 3 M’s Post-it notes, microwave ovens, and popsicles. 

Enterprises have their research & development departments work deliberately on innovation in order to continue to stay relevant. An excellent example is Apple, which continues to bring out products that delight customers.

Outstanding creative leaders are prepared to meet challenges with forced innovations. They provide the right environment for their teams to have a shot at accidental innovation. Such leaders create the right strategy, structure, and culture for their teams that help them succeed in planned innovations.

What does a leader’s playbook for innovation and creativity look like? It consists of five key components—leader as the role model, innovation culture, training and development, cross-functional collaboration, and streamlined innovation process.

I. Be a Role Model

Innovative teams thrive under a visionary leader who leads by example, has a mindset that promotes risk-taking, and looks at failures as opportunities to learn.

Elon Musk, founder, chairman, CEO, and chief technology officer of SpaceX, however controversial he might be, is one of the most innovative leaders of our times. He embodies what it means to be tenacious. The number of failures he experienced over his career and endeavors, and how he bounced back from them, is well documented in a 2017 infographic. Tenacity stands on the pillars of passion, audacity, grit, resilience, and flexibility.  

Ratan Tata is a prime example of a passionate leader. Tata firmly believes in the importance of entrepreneurship to India’s economic well-being and is a staunch supporter of innovation. He is well-known for investing in startups such as Ola Electric, Paytm, Snapdeal, and Lenskart. 

Audacity, another name for taking risks, is evidenced in Elon Musk’s entrepreneurial journey. Musk first announced his goal of colonizing Mars in 2001, and formally presented his plan in 2016. Audacity is not only about having bold ideas but also about having a plan to execute it.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder of the successful company Biocon, embodies what it means to have grit and persevere. She started Biocon India in 1978 in the garage of her rented house in Bengaluru with a seed capital of Rs. 10,000. Mazumdar-Shaw faced many challenges in the early days of Biocon. It took her tremendous efforts to convince investors to believe in her vision and overcome the naysayers in the male-dominated biotechnology industry.

Innovative leaders don’t get discouraged by failures. The life of Howard Schultz, Starbucks’s former CEO, is a prime example of resiliency. Schultz grew up in a public housing project in Brooklyn, New York, but overcame many obstacles to create Starbucks as what it is today. People who are resilient exhibit great flexibility in their lives. If one avenue closes, they find another open one.

Be a Role Model

II. Support innovative company culture

Innovation thrives in a company that has a culture that values creativity. The organization rewards creativity by celebrating wins and intelligent failures.

A culture that rewards creativity fosters innovation. Many enterprises have programs that recognize creativity by establishing award programs that shine the light on innovators. A 2014 article called 11 Non-Traditional Ways to Reward Innovative Employees describes several such awards:

  • Peer-to-peer rewards — At Zappos.com, employees award cash bonuses to other colleagues.
  • MVP rewards — Employees at biotechnology company Genentech are acknowledged for going over and above job responsibilities with a check ranging from $1,000 to $2,500.  
  • Patented rewards — Samsung has financially rewarded employees who submit patent applications on its behalf, as well as team members who apply the new technologies to its products.

Promoting creativity requires giving teams time to explore. Many organizations have programs where employees can spend a percentage of their time on research. Google is famous for its 20% rule, which encourages employees to spend time on projects of their choosing that benefit Google.

“Intelligent failures” was first defined by Professor Sim Sitkin of Duke University in 1992. In her 2023 book, Right Kind of Wrong, Harvard University professor, Amy Edmondson writes,

“Intelligent failures provide valuable new knowledge. They bring discovery. They occur when experimentation is necessary simply because answers are not knowable in advance. Perhaps a particular situation hasn’t been encountered before, or perhaps one is truly standing on the front lines of discovery in a field of research. Discovering new drugs, launching a radical new business model, designing an innovative product, or testing customer reactions in a brand-new market are all tasks that require intelligent failures to make progress and succeed.”

Innovative companies create diverse and inclusive teams in order to foster creativity. Their work environments promote collaboration. They promote psychological safety, which Professor Amy Edmondson defined as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

Support innovative company culture

III. Training and Development

“In the fixed mindset, everything is about the outcome. If you fail—or if you’re not the best—it’s all been wasted. The growth mindset allows people to value what they’re doing regardless of the outcome. They’re tackling problems, charting new courses, working on important issues. Maybe they haven’t found the cure for cancer, but the search was deeply meaningful.”

- Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Innovation requires a growth mindset which is characterized by:

  • A belief that everyone can learn and develop themselves
  • Experimenting, failing, learning, and applying the learning
  • Persevering against all odds
  • Being open to critical feedback to foster growth


Organizations that invest in training to cultivate this mindset reap the benefits of innovative teams. Courses on the topic are available on educational websites such as Coursera, Udemy, and Khan Academy. An alternative is to have a focused workshop, which gives the team members a chance to learn together.

Creative Problem-Solving

All innovations start with a problem.  

The 2021 article, Fast-forward: Will the speed of COVID-19 vaccine development reset industry norms? says, “A McKinsey analysis of all new drugs developed since 2000 shows that the mean development timeline—from the start of clinical testing (Phase 1) to approval—is nearly ten years.” Yet, the vaccines for the COVID-19 virus were developed and deployed at a mind-boggling speed. The article considered five factors that contributed to this speed, and one of them is “Operational Excellence and Innovation in Execution,” which is possible when the teams are trained in creative problem-solving.

Curiosity is a critical element that underlies effective problem-solving.

The Five Whys process, built on curiosity, is an effective tool for discovering the root causes and addressing them to solve complicated problems. The tool has some shortcomings, but it is simple to start with.

Complex problems cannot be solved with a linear process like Five Whys. They require holistic thinking, and by bringing together design thinking, systems thinking, and computational thinking, teams can begin to address them. Frameworks (which address a broad scope) and mental models (focused on a specific problem) benefit innovation.

“Lateral thinking” is a process different from vertical thinking, a step-by-step process. With lateral thinking, you look at complex problems in a novel way to find a solution, often borrowing the learning from another domain.

Technology

We live in an age where we see unprecedented, exponential technological advances. It is imperative that organizations invest in upskilling their teams in using such advances cautiously. Adoption of technology can be both bottom-up and top-down. In the top-down mode, the Chief Innovation Officer and his team keep abreast of technological advances and proposed introducing them to the organization methodically. The adoption can also be organic. Every organization has innovators, no matter where they are in the organization structure. They find and adopt technology much earlier before their peers or supervisors see it and evangelize it. In an innovative culture, these individuals are praised, and their voices promoted.

Training and Development

IV. Cross-Functional Collaboration

Anita Williams Woolley, Associate Dean, Research and Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at Tepper Business School at Carnegie Mellon, and her co-researchers were responsible for the seminal work on collective intelligence of teams. Their research established that a team’s performance is based on the members’ social sensitivity or social intelligence, not on the presence of high-IQ team members and how evenly conversational turn-taking is distributed in team communications.

Innovation requires people from different parts of the organization to come together to solve a problem or create a new product or service.

The 2021 McKinsey article mentioned earlier says,

“Above all, the development programs for COVID-19 vaccines will be remembered for an unprecedented level of collaboration among mature, global pharmaceutical companies; young biotech companies; health authorities and regulatory agencies; and a range of public and private institutions that committed funding, research, and other resources.”

Organizations should pay attention to fostering collaboration. You can do so by having a shared vision and setting common goals. Incentives available to the whole organization, such as referral bonuses for hiring, can reduce the silo mentality. Sharing credit for a project that spans departments and celebrating success would facilitate them to work together better. Today, data is indispensable for making decisions. Having transparency of this data across the whole organization is vital for teaming.

Cross-Functional Collaboration

V. Innovation Processes

Organizations that want to foster creativity can benefit tremendously from having a well-defined process for innovation.

Microsoft has a published innovation framework that involves five sub-processes—Envision, Engage, Evolve, Evaluate, and Execute—addressing the different stages. Each of the sub-processes has goals of defining innovation strategy given the organization’s overall strategy; engaging employees, customers, and partners to create ideas; evolving the generated ideas further for value-creation by doing small experiments and the use of feedback; evaluating the resulting set of innovations and obtaining expert feedback to identify the business case; and finally, execute the plan based on the business case. 

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for every stage in the process can help assess the success and correct the course as needed.

Using tools and technologies can help speed up the overall innovation process. For example, many prototyping tools can help mock up the ideas, share them, and refine the ideas with feedback. There are many visualization tools available to do market research. Business model generation tools like Business Model Canvas help accelerate your ideas to product or service offerings. 

In a startup, an innovation process involves rapid iterations of ideation, prototyping, and testing to develop a product or service. This explains why startups with a lightweight approach can innovate at warp speeds while it takes longer for established enterprises.

Creativity and Innovation Require Nurturing

Innovation thrives when the organization is focused on it with intention. It starts with an innovative leader as a role model. It thrives in a culture that is fearless and open-minded. Training, cross-functional collaboration, and processes that support deliberate innovation are all factors that nurture creativity. These help to build an outstanding and successful environment where people thrive and are eager every day to start work.

Shantha-May

Dr. Shantha Mohan

Software Engineering Leader, Author, Mentor

Author Spotlight

Dr. Shantha Mohan is a mentor, project guide, and an Executive in Residence at the iLab, Integrated Innovation Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Before that, she was a global technical leader and entrepreneur, co-founding Retail Solutions Inc., a retail analytics company. She also has over 20 years of experience focused on mission-critical systems to support semiconductor and other high-value-added manufacturing. 

Dr. Shantha is a three-time author, has authored Roots and Wings – Inspiring Stories of Indian Women in Engineering, and has co-authored Demystifying AI for The Enterprise – A Playbook for Business Value and Digital Transformation. Her newest book, Leadership Lessons with The Beatles: Tips and Tools for Becoming Better at Leading, was published by Routledge, Taylor & Francis in May 2022.

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