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Is Your Innovation Stuck? 5 Ways to Rethink Your Approach

Everywhere I go, I hear people talk about disruption and innovation. They desperately want to upend their business and be the champion! But instead, they talk, they make changes and ideas get lost.
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Everywhere I go, I hear people talk about disruption and innovation. They desperately want to upend their business and be the champion! But instead, they talk, they make changes around the edges to try and compete and the idea gets lost in what if's and can't-dos. Any disruption gets squelched barely out of the gate.

Yet there are some major shifts coming (they're actually already here) that will make this challenge even more difficult. We've got the most diverse workplace in the world and getting more so annually. There's low employee engagement. And people feel under increased competitive pressure.

How do organizations respond? By implementing what they know. Increase productivity! Decrease costs! Pressure employees to do more with less!

But this response is based on same operating assumptions that were laid out in the industrial age. Technology innovation didn't change this operating assumption; it just added another layer by making optimization faster. The assumption? Workers are machines that can be optimized.

Managers struggle to understand how to leverage their employees' talent because they are trying to extract more and more. The result? Despite increasing pressure to innovate, most organizations can't. And talent is ironically, under-utilized: women remain predominantly at low levels, diversity stays flat, employees are under engaged, bureaucracy stifles innovation, and top-down decision making remains everywhere.

The reality is that more optimization and increased productivity can't solve problems of people. People are messy, different, difficult and frustrating. They are also innovative, creative, collaborative, and connecting. We are trying to optimize something that can't be optimized. We are trying to solve the wrong problem.

The solution is to rethink the way we work. My colleagues and I at Suffolk University have identified five opportunities to disrupt this operating assumption and leverage the messiness of people. Together these opportunities enable organizations to really disrupt and innovate their business:

1) Achieving Work -­‐ Life -­‐ Self Synergy: not flexibility in time but rethinking how work gets done so that employees can integrate all aspects of their lives. Here, work is designed under the premise that employees can be trusted to get the outcomes required. It requires changes in how work is measured (e.g. beyond a butts in seats approach) and reframing the assumption that work is the only thing that matters.

2) Integrating Productivity Across Diversity: Diversity yields creativity and innovation. But we haven't figured out how to tap into this. Thus women and ethnicities are underrepresented in leadership. Millennials don't want to work for corporate America. And performance is still being measured in relation to old methods, mostly based on internal connections and perceptions of performance rather than more objective measures.

3) Making Worker Fit for Meaning and Engagement: organizations consider skill - task fit but rarely use two other criteria - meaning and engagement. What would happen if we built that into the fundamental design of work? What if making work meaningful for people who do it mattered as well as their productivity?

4) Shifting Power and Reward Structures: to make any of these changes work, the power and incentive structures have to change. We behave based on what is rewarded. If we reward time and connections, then that is how people will compete - or how they will consciously opt out of the competition (by taking themselves out of the running). But what if we rewarded value added or measured what is invisible? For example, pay is hidden and considered the most useful motivating device despite decades of research suggesting intrinsic rewards (like participating in decisions) matter more. Imagine how the power could shift!

5) Building the Learning Organization: Tying it together would be a culture that enables organizations to adapt. Called Deliberately Developmental Organizations by some or learning organizations by others. It's time we designed organizations to continually adapt rather than maintain command and control approaches. We could build organizations that allow people in them to try new possibilities and take risks. In effect, every organization could become an innovation lab in which employees seek to challenge and improve any aspect.

These five opportunities represent the next level of development for organizations to really leverage their talent. Today's organizations aren't resisting these changes out of spite but because to successfully implement them, the fundamental operating assumption must change. As Einstein notes, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

This is challenging but not impossible. We can start to imagine the solutions and rethink the way we work. Imagine what it would be like to work for an organization that valued the people in it and its bottom line. A true win/win.

Suffolk University is sponsoring a conference to help organizations think through these innovations as a community. Check out more information at

*With contributions from Dominic Thomas, Jane Goldner and Arnold Kamis.