3 Simple Ideas to Combat the Innovation Skills Shortage

In looking at Brandon Hall Group’s latest Talent Management benchmarking survey, there is one theme that kept jumping out at me – the need for innovation. Ranking second only to cost-cutting (and only by a slim margin), organizations cited developing innovative products and solutions as one of the top three areas where their organization devotes most of its attention. But when it comes to talent shortages, 13% of organizations expect a severe shortage in the area of strategy and innovation in the coming 12 months, with another 41% indicating at least a moderate shortage. This makes it one of the most critical talent shortages identified in this year’s research.

But is innovation something we can create more of? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, is one of my favorite authorities on the subject of creativity and innovation. His work frequently discusses flow as a necessary component for creativity and innovation. He describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” When was the last time you felt like that at work? And if you are a manager, when was the last time you helped individuals on your team to achieve that state?

Clearly I’m not advocating that we give everyone a comfy chair and play jazz and hope for brilliance. That’s not going to work. But what can we do as organizations and managers to create more flow in our organizations, and overcome the innovation skill crisis? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Take the time to understand your team. For some great managers this comes intuitively, but for most of us it doesn’t. Tools like assessments can help offer insights into your own work style and preferences, and those of your team. When you understand the type of work environment in which individuals are most likely to be successful – highly directed versus independent, collaborative versus solo, working within their comfort zones versus being stretched – you as a manager can help create that set of circumstances more often. Sometimes individuals are self-aware enough to share with you what they’ve learned about their own ability to be creative, so ask. Creating the conditions for success is one of the best things you can do as a manager.
  • Broaden the innovation definition. We often think of innovation as the hot new product or game-changing service offering. But innovation comes in many forms. A new way to streamline your internal accounting processes, or a better way to leverage social tools for customer service. Learn to recognize and reward innovation at all levels in your organization, and highlight examples for others of what innovation really means to your company. When people understand that their little ideas are actually big innovation, they’re more likely to come forward with them.
  • Ensure a line of sight. Innovation is not just the bolt from the blue. Ideally it is coming up with creative new ways to help you achieve your business objectives. And people are more likely to help you do so if they really understand what those objectives are. Most people really only consider their day-to-day responsibilities, but when they can see the bigger picture they’re more likely to find new ways to help. If your job is to put widget A into box B, finding opportunities to innovate may be difficult. But if you understand the organizational vision to make product C a market leader, for example, it’s easier to get inspired by the possibilities. If managers expect innovation and creativity, they need to paint a picture of the future vision to help inspire their people, and give a clear line of sight to future goals.

Mollie Lombardi, Vice President of Workforce Management Practice,
Brandon Hall Group

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Mollie Lombardi