The Future of Work: How to Optimize Your Organization for Innovation

Innovation is one of the hottest topics in how organizations are thinking about the future. Executives view it as the Holy Grail to their organization’s success. Managers are seeking effective ways to implement it. And teams are wondering how to balance it with getting shit done.

So while it’s really easy to say to your work force, “Go forth and innovate!” what does that even mean for your current culture? How is innovation defined? What does it look like? And how do you optimize an organization for it?

To help our community consider answers to these questions, we sat down with a killer lineup of organizational development leaders to discuss just that—The Future of Work: How to Optimize Your Organization for Innovation. Joining us on the panel were:

  • Lucy Blair Chung, Head of People & Organizational Development, Rag & Bone
  • Miles Begin, Co-founder, The Design Gym & Director of Product Design, Canary
  • Mike Arauz, Founder, August
  • Johnathan Basker, Founder, Basker & Co

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These creative leaders have helped lead the charge towards creating organizations that foster and support innovation across a wide variety of industries. They’ve helped figure out what innovation means to their organizations, where it’s most valuable, and how they make it a part of their team’s everyday operations. Here’s a recap of their awesome insights and war stories.

Defining Innovation for Your Organization

“Innovation” can be a tricky (buzz)word to define. The first step for any organization to become more innovative is to clearly define what innovation means in the context of their business, culture, and current processes.

As Miles explained, “Language can trigger a reaction because it has cultural baggage to it. If I tell everyone in this room to imagine a tree, not everyone will imagine the same tree.” It’s the same with the word “innovation.” Even among four like-minded individuals, there was no absolute agreement on how to define the word—which appropriately highlights why it can be so hard to apply it to an organization.

Jonathan described two types of innovation. “One is proactive or offensive, and the other is reactionary or defensive.” Innovation can be responding to a problem, like downward trending sales. Or, it could be creating a new product based off listening to customer’s feedback.

Lucy, on the other hand, didn’t necessarily agree that innovation could be defensive. “Innovative assumes there’s a baseline that you are reacting to,” stated Lucy. “You’re setting up for a future state.” Reactionary implies that you are a “trend-follower,” and therefore, not an innovator.

Mike spoke to the responsive nature of innovation. “Innovation is sensing and adapting,” explained Mike. “You have to put something out in the world first so that you can learn what happens.”

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It’s ok for there to be various definitions of innovation. But to Miles’ point earlier, what’s key is that you develop a common understanding of what innovation looks like for your organization—and that needs to come from within, with senior leadership on board and championing it from the top.

Designing an Environment that Encourages Innovation

After you have a clear definition, it’s time to optimize for it. For an organization, that means designing an environment that encourages innovation.

Create a structure: Mike stressed the importance of creating a structure for innovation to exist. “Think of innovation as everyone’s responsibility and everyone’s work,” explained Mike. You have to empower each individual team member to think about how to improve upon their day-to-day work. But, there still has to be the ability to try something out and evaluate the results. And in order to do that, a team needs time and space to step back and reflect. “One of the things we do at August is structure our work in four week cycles. Every four weeks, we take one week to reflect on what we need to do.”

Ensure effective management: Making improvements, in large organizations, often requires the work of many people in many departments. A good manager should be able to prioritize for their team and clearly state what you and your employees are responsible for. Make sure roles are clearly defined and everyone is aware of them, suggested Mike. Prioritizing clear, achievable goals empowers your staff to use their creativity to meet them. And, by writing down who’s responsible for it, you create accountability.

“Ask your manager ‘what do you want me working on?’ If they can’t give you four things, they have a prioritization problem.” advised Lucy. “What’s more important are leaders who make the time for creativity and strategy.” She continued to explain how this approach worked for Rag & Bone. “At Rag & Bone, our stores are a huge part of our brand. We decided to institutionalize the esthetic as a core competency.” Rag & Bone invested in a team that focuses solely on the design of retail stores, and that team is actually bigger than the apparel team.

Build empathy and create trust: In order to create lasting change, start with yourself, especially if you’re at the top. “As a leader, you should always be the one to create that trust. Your people shouldn’t feel that gap in the first place,” added Lucy. If you want to empower people to take risks, you can’t let them feel afraid to fail.

Mike recommended using InsideOut’s coaching method to solicit feedback from teams within your organization to better understand what’s important to them to guide positive and productive conversations. The three key questions to ask are:

  • What’s working?
  • Where are we getting stuck?
  • What might we do differently?

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The Future of Your Organization

These organizational leaders have been in the trenches and know what it takes to create a culture of innovation. Their tips are a great place to start if you’re looking to do the same. That means defining innovation for your organization—and making sure the leadership is bought in. It also means spreading that spirit of innovation throughout the organization and making it part of your day-to-day operations. And of course, doing it all with empathy—listening to your team and your users to make sure you’re asking the right questions and solving the right problems. That kind of encouraging, open environment is the foundation needed to change how your organization works in the future, which is actually now!

Go forth and innovate 😉

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The Design Gym
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