Is your Workplace Ready for Innovation?


6 Things you should be doing to turn Chaos into Value Innovation.

“Smart companies manage chaos, they don’t kill it”. -Unknown

In the not too distant past (within my Gen X memory anyway!), information was your key source of power. If you had access to or expert knowledge of a subject you could ensure a competitive advantage.

Well, it’s certainly no longer breaking news that today, it’s how you creatively engage or what you do with information, that helps you even just stay afloat in the chaos of today’s economic and technological equivalent of a high-speed rocket launch headed to Mars. Any 8-year-old can pretty well access the same information your organization can, so how do you stay relevant, and hopefully ahead of the game?

So honestly, how ready is your workplace to innovate? It’s not enough just to throw around the term ‘innovation’ as a fashionable buzzword, or build a cool-ass slide from your mezzanine to the ground floor cafeteria that your millennials will trip over. What, really, on the most practical level, do you have to do to ensure your workplace culture lives, eats and breathes innovation, embraces change and creates blue oceans, as Kim and Maubourgne define them in their fantastic book on innovation, Blue Ocean Strategy.

Understand that the idea of innovation has to permeate every aspect of your organization.  From on high, to down low.  I can not emphasize enough, a quarterly brainstorming session on X topic does not count you amongst the industry innovative.

Ostrich, Turtle or Racehorse?

So how risk averse are you as an organization: are we talking Head-in-the-Sand, Already-Out-of-the-Gate or just the normal dose of fearful?  Wherever you see yourself, on the spectrum of innovation readiness, you can use these seven things to help you pick up your innovation game.

1. Know Thyself

It’s very helpful to know where you are now. How ready are you actually? To innovate? Assess your leadership and teams for how they view risk, transparency, making mistakes. Assess your organization for it’s ‘innovation infrastructure’: what is in place to generate, encourage and implement new ideas, in terms of processes, planning, rewards and recognition, space and time allocation.  There are a host of organizations that offer such assessments, some of the bigger ones being: IDEO, Schaffer Consulting, FourSight, as well as The Moment, and Innovety.

Knowing where you fall short in your innovation infrastructure and readiness, allows you to know what of the following pieces to focus on first, or most.

2. From the Top Down

Innovation has to be part of your highest-level business strategy.  Switch up your traditional yearly strategic plan for a strategic innovation plan: since you’re taking the time to go through the process anyway (or should be!), make it innovation-based!  

That means building a business plan that has taken the time to identify long-term opportunities based on customer or end-user inspired ideas and new potential competitive spaces.  Then it bridges backward to the present, using adaptable, experimental infrastructure. This is very different from ‘present to future’, incremental innovation, which uses traditional linear planning models that often focus on the same old product categories or business activity areas like technology.  

Many consulting organizations offer innovation plan models or even software: shop around and see who has what fits the size and nature of your organization best.   What this does is optimize the success rate of your strategic plan (up to 70% of traditional plans are never implemented!), and make sure innovation doesn’t get haphazardly relegated to the odd project here or there.  

3. Innovate By Protecting Yourself

Sounds contradictory? Develop a framework for innovative ideas and projects that build in risk mitigation.  While the idea of failing-forward, as coined by author and corporate leadership guru John Maxwell, is an essential attitude toward innovation, no company wants to tank because they failed too big.  

Risk mitigation for innovation projects has to follow the first part of Maxwell’s quote, the ‘fail early, fail often’ principle, meaning they have to have time, size, budget, and other parameters, and be broken into “go/no go” phases (where they can be halted at any time if needed), to help contain them as they are piloted.  If they fail early, the bottom line isn’t at risk. If they do well, good for you! Proceed to the next level, and keep scaling.

4. Scale Your Innovation Infrastructure

Using a solid innovation process as described above for the odd project is nice, but to truly ingrain innovation into your culture, provide built-in time and space for all workers to check out from daily tasks and think outside the box.  A bright and colourful room with space to stretch out, scribble on the walls. A platform to submit or openly share ideas. Innovation chat sessions with a chosen theme. A mandated hour a week to get out for a walk and change gears. Google’s famous 20% rule (one day off a week to focus on creative projects), led to Gmail and other great things.  Not that this is the sacred or exclusive territory of tech companies. Not by any means, and don’t make that your excuse! Of course, if you don’t plan to do anything with these great ideas (a not uncommon scenario from my experience working with clients), then people, your organization’s greatest creative asset, will lose interest quickly.

5. Culture is About Language

Develop a language of innovation.  Basically anything written and spoken needs to start using words like ‘‘experiment’, ‘scouting mission’, ‘trial’, ‘pilot’, ‘exploration’, or ‘opportunity’, and ditch overuse of words like “failure”, ‘success’, ‘unsuccessful’, ‘mistake’ and ‘impossible’.  This goes for internal communications from leadership to employees, to job descriptions and anything else used in the hiring process, to manuals and procedural documents, to planning, strategy, marketing, and other documents. And of course, it goes without saying, what leaders are saying internally during meetings and any other occasion. Remember though: language is important, but if you’re only talking the talk…   

Now that you’ve invested in some Innovation ‘Infrastructure’, you need some tools to help you foster creative thinking…

6. All Set, Now What?

Not sure where, what or how you should be innovating?  I have three great, broad approaches to suggest.

Vijay Govindarajan’s Three Box Solution is a simple way of looking at what you need to stop doing, keep doing, and start doing, as a way to direct your innovative thinking and jettison the old that is holding you back, all while maintaining your ever-important current operations.  This approach is all about practical strategic innovation. Check out his book of the same name.

Already mentioned is Kim and Maubourgne’s Blue Ocean Strategy.  They propose a method and sound tools that can help you, whether you’re a multinational or a smaller organization or business, create new market spaces through value innovation.  Have a look at their canvas tool - easily adaptable to your context.

Or take frequent Harvard Business Review contributor and InnoSight managing director Scott D. Anthony’s human-centered design approach, which he calls the 5 Cs.  This hinges on a key question “What job is the customer/end-user trying to get done (with my service or product)”?  You then examine how Circumstance, Context, Constraints, Compensating behaviours, and Criteria influence the use of your service or product from an end-user point of view, helping you to innovate where needed. You can apply this to end-users of systems, processes and products both internal (employees) and external (clients, customers, vendors) to your organization.  Here is a link to his HBR article on the topic.


For a business owner or organizational leader, it can be challenging to know where to start. Do we start big or small? Do we start here or there? What if it doesn’t work? How do I convince the board?  And then all kinds of excuses come in to play: fear of not being a big league player with limitless resources; fear of not getting it right; fear that you aren’t really ‘experts’ in innovation; conviction that the type of work you do or service you offer does not lend itself to innovation.   The nature of innovation is that it can begin small or big, with few or many resources, in any area of your business or work. To stay relevant in today’s economic climate, you honestly have no choice. The key is to develop and apply infrastructure that allows innovation to safely take place, and then to give your most important creative asset, your people, free reign to move within that.

If you have any questions about bringing innovation to your workplace, or about more innovation tools to help you on your way, feel free to reach out:


Barbara Odenwald

As consultant and coach, Barbara helps build leadership and team capacity for corporate, public and not-for-profit organizations. She works collaboratively with clients to assess needs and to deliver customized tools, strategies and programs.

Her passion and expertise in innovation, change management, and problem-solving, help create sustainable learning organizations. Barbara holds two degrees and certificates in her field from UBC and MIT and is a Conversational Intelligence coach.

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