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Thought Leadership

Driving Innovation Through Inclusion

Two businessman talking while seated next to each other at a desk.

During a crisis, intuitive responses can make matters worse if individuals and organizations are not careful to slow down and be intentional. Panicked by COVID-19, many people stockpiled essential items, such as toilet paper. While rushing to the store might have equipped them for the short term, such knee-jerk reactions did not position our society for success in the long term and might have increased the risk of infection as many people entered stores before safety measures were implemented.

Similarly, learning and development (L&D) leaders must think about the dangers of short-term, intuitive reactions to COVID-19. Simply replicating face-to-face learning experiences into a digital format might serve some short-term needs, but an intentional, forward-thinking approach would be more likely to achieve the impact desired in the long run.

Decisions on transitioning learning to virtual delivery must consider the goal: to change knowledge, skills, or attitudes. While virtual delivery can work to increase knowledge, it is less effective in building skills. It is even less effective when the goal is to change employee attitudes. If the goal is to make an impact on more than one area, L&D leaders may need to take an innovative approach and offer a potentially blended learning solution. In addition to inputs you get from your colleagues and business line leaders, consulting with industry peers on the right delivery mix and cadence can provide fresh ideas for practical solutions.

Another reactionary behavior for many companies is cutting their learning budgets or indefinitely suspending development altogether due to COVID. However, there is compelling evidence of the negative bottom-line impact from that decision. A study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that out of 359 companies that invested average or higher amounts in their leadership development grew profits by approximately 200% after the 2008 financial crisis. Companies that were more reactionary and either cut or invested lower amounts in leadership development grew profits by just 50% following the crisis.

Cultivating an Inclusive, Innovative Culture

So how can L&D leaders help create an environment that shuns knee-jerk reactions to business challenges and instead strives for innovative and effective responses — not innovation for its own sake, but to make a real impact on core challenges and opportunities? One idea is to offer learning journeys that foster a more inclusive team environment, which can help encourage innovation. UNC Professor Al Segars, author of the book “Ideas and Innovative Organizations: A Tribal Perspective”, points out that while the media like stories of “messiahs” – individuals whose brilliant ideas save their company – innovation usually is powered by “innovation tribes”.

These intentionally formed teams drive towards a common goal through a consistent process, shared values, thoughtful consensus, and the use of practical boundaries to guide their efforts and “think big”. Such teams recognize that every member has a unique role to play, match individual strengths and passions to the right roles, and build a culture where members can adapt quickly to new roles when needed. Innovation tribes led to the creation of Apple’s iPod, which revolutionized music delivery in the mid-2000s. Apple’s continued success can be credited to constant product innovation through a structured, repeatable, team process.

Michael Tatham, president and CEO of UNC affiliate partner Tatham Inc., agrees that innovations that arise from problem-solving are not always intuitive solutions from an individual. Rather, they emerge from dedication to an innovative mindset and from leadership commitment to enable cross-functional teams to truly investigate core business challenges.

“Assumptions must be challenged and real business experimentation must take place, with measurable data collection,” says Tatham. “Individuals and organizations must go slow to go fast. When they take a systematic approach to innovation, it shifts their focus from ‘solution-centered’ to ‘problem-centered’ and inspires a new perspective on re-thinking internal processes. Having an innovative mindset is more than bringing creative solutions to the table. It is a fundamental, organization-wide commitment to an intentional, collaborative problem-solving journey. It is also a mindset that challenges assumptions, systematically experiments and embraces new and unexpected paths forward.”

What Next?

As organizations plan for re-entry from what many have called a “great pause”, L&D leaders must re-imagine their offerings in order to continue to impact their organizations. Disruption is an age-old catalyst for change, and no doubt there are great opportunities for innovation in this re-imagining.

The most successful leaders harness the power and energy around innovative, collaborative thinking to drive change that is sustainable. UNC Executive Development and our partners such as Tatham Inc. are collaborating as we continue to research what learning delivery models are most effective in making the most business impact in this new world.