by Pearl Zhu

11 digital principles for building a creative digital workforce

Nov 12, 2018
InnovationIT LeadershipIT Skills

Itu2019s important to set core principles for building and nurturing an environment in the organization where curiosity is encouraged, and creative thinking is rewarded.

With fast-paced changes and continuous digital disruptions, businesses across industry sectors get more cut-throat in the hyper-connected working environment. It puts stress on the labor force that is not conducive to more creative and experimental thinking. To survive in today’s digital dynamic, it’s strategic imperative to create a disciplined and managed space for inspiring creativity, developing and testing new business models, products, services and business management approaches, shielding innovation teams from the organization’s dominant logic and established standard operating procedures, in order to encourage creative thinking and embrace fresh perspectives. Here is a set of core digital principles for building a creative working environment to unleash collective human potential.

1. It is important to discover the needs of innovation as the first step

Business innovation is about creating a value proposition that would move your prospects to become your clients; more importantly, to improve customer retention. It takes vision, empathy and understanding of cohesive business efforts for managing a balanced innovation portfolio with the right mix of breakthrough innovation, evolutionary innovation and incremental innovation. Put the purpose, people and consumers’ experiences at the center of everything you do. Communicate the higher purpose and establish clear and shared goals. People must believe in the company’s vision and mission. Priorities are clear and no longer look arbitrary. Innovation is not just about a new design, a new color, or a new seasonal change. Innovation is not only about an amazing idea or the marketing change of an existing product. Innovation is also about utilizing what you already have in a unique and creative way that has not been done before and using that thing to make a profit.

2. Recreate the start-up stage to encourage dissent, candor and independent thinking

The digital world is dynamic, nonlinear, uncertain and volatile. One of the biggest challenges in this dynamic and complex digital world is the fact that we need different perspectives, different knowledge and different ways to solve problems. We should also take alternative paths of experimenting, adventuring and exploring the digital new normal, to achieve well-set business goals. It’s not so easy for many organizations, especially those large well-established organizations to de-bureaucratize and become innovative. It is critical to recreate the startup stage and develop an environment in which business leaders encourage dissent, candor and inspire people to question the status quo and think independently. Sometimes there is no “one” answer, there are some or many. Running an innovative business means that an organization can think “out of the box,” figure out alternative ways to do things from the outside-in lens, build new products or services based on the business needs, and come up with optimal solutions to fixing either existing or emergent problems.

3. Build a strong culture to enforce transparency and long-term business relationships

Digital technology makes the world more open and transparent than ever. At the organizational level, businesses are always on and hyperconnected. They should cultivate the right environment to foster integrity, trust, transparency and risk-taking in order to build a creative workforce. The business keeps processes transparent; managers do not micromanage but inspect and keep track of what the team is doing. Tie innovation and innovative culture to the organization’s strategy by enforcing the long-term business relationship development. This ensures that innovations will be supported by management and by all stakeholders. Often, organizations with a command type of organizational culture indifferent to external innovations. Without a cross-functional and end-to-end perspective across the entire enterprise, business managers and teams operate with an incomplete and relatively small view of the business ecosystem, tend to focus on their own functions or departments, stifle information flow and idea flow. Keep in mind though; cultivating an innovative culture is not an isolated business process but an ongoing digital transformation journey. You may also influence the culture through the rapid learning cycle which stands on its own as a separate point of influence.

4. Allow autonomy; let people choose how and on what they work

Digital organizations encourage autonomy and inspire creativity. To put another way, the management focuses on “why,” and “what,” not “how.” Autonomy stimulates creativity. Creativity has a language, but it is altogether different from the one found in the conventional business environment. Every person has an unknown amount of creativity, motivation and productivity as well as an unknown amount of imagination, intelligence, knowledge, experience and energy. The majority of innovative organizations are headed by strong leaders who can see, understand and appreciate the merits of people who can think differently. How much brainpower employees will unleash on their work depends almost totally on the leadership and corporate culture. Encourage curiosity and develop a growth mindset. Provide intellectual challenges and help people make continuous progress. Give the team freedom to do things in their own way, figure out alternative solutions and deliver the best outcome. Generally speaking, you must allow room for failures, for tangents and for “being different.” With autonomy, the team organizes by itself on how it will address the problem that has been presented to it.

5. Focus on what customers want and what the marketplace is moving towards

One of the key characteristics of the digital business is customer centricity. Thus, the customer is absolutely a vital part of the overall innovation process. Customer-centric innovation accomplishes far more than incremental product improvement. It can also build evolutionary business models, as well as path-breaking products and services that establish new categories, and even internal process improvements arise from customer-centric innovation. Customers, including prospects should be studied and observed. Gain an empathetic understanding of users through deep observations and leverage a more inductive approach as to what the customer wants to accomplish “next.” Focusing on meeting important customers’ need, instead of just doing simply interesting research topics, helps to assure that the results of innovative approaches will have a positive impact on clients, partners, end users and the marketplace.

6. Look at innovation from the perspective of developing business-wide innovation capabilities

Innovation has three phases: Discovery of a problem or new idea, designing a prototype solution and the ultimate delivery of a commercially astute outcome. The best point of view is to see innovation as a system, capable of delivering the organization-wide capability. The organizational content is the innovation capability which is how the organization innovates. It requires an effective ‘innovation system’ that is capable of supporting both widespread incremental innovations in products or services as well as the rarer ‘step-change’ innovations of working methodologies, business models and market positioning. Innovative organizations deploy a range of different management disciplines, technologies, processes and structural solutions. Innovation management requires the highest risk-taking at a strategic value chain; including organizations, investments and assets. Create a disciplined and managed space for developing and testing new models, products and business management approaches. An innovation ecosystem or the methodological environment should cover the whole innovation processes, from processes in managing ideas or idea handling systems to idea implementation and promotion.

7. Shareholders and C-suite executives need to agree that the next round of financial statements is not just for the short-term business goals

Innovation comes with a risk of failure, usually not well tolerated in a market governed by risk-allergic mindset. Some innovations take a bit longer term investment. From a finance perspective, as for innovation, it can be better not to define the budget too narrowly as with regular projects. Since part of the innovation puzzle is that the management might not know how and for what you will use the budget; and some innovation needs to be fed with resources while others get better by ‘starving’ them. Some innovations take a bit longer term investment. In many companies, a pervasive obsession for purely quantitative measurement or numerical success indicators sweeps aside much of the softer and more qualitative information that is crucial in understanding the health and well-being of the firm’s innovation efforts holistically. Some mindsets are only concerned with quarterly ROIs and protecting passive shareholder equity to satisfy the preoccupations of investment capital. Forward-looking leaders are the ones who don’t lose the sight of the long-term perspective or the ‘big picture” view, although they spend the necessary time, efforts and resources on “keeping the light on,” and achieving the short-term business results. Transparency can help innovation leaders tell a story of the journey from current state to the future state of improvements, of accomplishments, of enablement with business strategies, etc. It’s definitely a great core competency to leverage.

8. Performance management and remuneration policy and process need to reflect the desire for the organization to be innovative

Like many other types of management, performance management is important to make innovation value more tangible, analyze innovation benefit per cost and measure innovation effort both qualitatively and quantitatively. Innovation needs a certain level of guidelines and rules. Keep measures simple and understandable. Any innovative idea to be successful during its development of achieving business value should satisfy the following criteria: Consumability, marketability, feasibility and profitability. From workforce and workplace innovation management perspective, there are two types of measurement: The first type of creativity measurement in the workplace is through the results or the outcomes of creative thoughts and actions. What value have those new things designed and implemented? The second type of assessment is through innovation drivers; the elements that enhance the organizational innovation capacity. For measuring such, there must be an appreciation for the organization of the sources of creativity as well as the structures and cultures that will promote innovation. Choose the right metrics by deciding which are seen as critical to making the progress in order to deliver more business value.

9. The risk is part of innovation, but you can manage parts of these risks

Employees need to be given the ‘permission’ to be innovative. Failure should not be an offense and actually if there are not a few failures, that means you are not trying hard enough. Failure should be regarded as a learning experience rather than offense. Build the culture of continuous learning and encourage break-through thinking. The purpose of assessing risk against consequence criteria is to determine what risks must be managed, and who needs to be involved in innovation management. The job of management is to help when a failure happens to turn it around as a team. Defining risks the way enables corporate management to define what degree of consequence (assuming the risk is highly likely to occur) the corporate management needs to be informed about (escalation) and what degree of consequence from a single event they believe is the threshold that requires their management to divert some of their time from other business activities, to the management of the specific risk they don’t want to be informed about (prioritization). Innovation Risk Management means stepping away from the accepted “best practice” and asking whether a fundamentally different approach would provide more flexibility, sensitivity and responsiveness.

10. The creative workplace is based on a triangle with three vertices – culture, method and people

Creativity is a long-term endeavor. It must be cultivated. Culture must be fostered from the board of directors downwards; otherwise, no real sponsorship takes place. The scientific methodology is required for achieving high performance, facilitating creativity teams and providing proper creativity tools. People must enthusiastically participate, getting proper empowerment and noticing that their initiatives do arrive at the end. Teams are built on a high level of people’s motivation (self-motivation), which cannot be bought. Through social learning and development, creativity is either cultivated by positive reinforcement or squelched through negative reinforcement. Generally speaking, the more innovative employees are, the less tolerant to structures (policies, rules and paradigms) and less respectful of consensus they are. Innovators often prefer to “do things differently” and such major remolding or breaking of paradigms means loosening structures and challenging consensus until the new way is adopted and becomes the new structure or paradigm. Creativity is a long-term endeavor.

11. Being innovative is a state of mind, which is more important than doing any type of innovation

Employees need to be given ‘permissions’ and encouraged to be innovative. Just as we find energy is released from one steady state to another, we discover innovation from our outer realities attempts to change to the steady state of our inner self. This energy is called being innovative. From the organizational management perspective, create a safe environment for helping people learn from failures and making people feel more comfortable with chaos, uncertainty and ambiguity. Allow time for playing and experimenting. Failure should be regarded as a learning experience rather than offense. Build the culture of continuous learning and encourage breakthrough thinking. It is important to have a heterogeneous group setting and let people view an idea from different perspectives, brainstorm diverse thoughts and ideas, apply varying thinking techniques. It is also important to set rules for safeguarding the status quo, but not for stifling innovation. If you want to rejuvenate a “creative culture” in the company, you need to give talent a “place” to expand their knowledge, a chance to apply their ideas, recognition of their idea, no unconscious bias or hidden rules in the office and build a highly collaborative team in the company. Create and nurture an environment in your organization in which humility is appreciated, curiosity is encouraged, and creative thinking is rewarded. You will be amazed that this simple mindset and appropriate actions with this mindset will turn the creative machine in your organization beyond your imagination.

All humans are naturally creative. Today, innovation can happen anywhere, anytime; it expands both horizontally and vertically. It’s the state of mind to think and do things from a new angle. It’s important to set core digital principles for building and nurturing a working environment in the organization where curiosity is encouraged, and creative thinking is rewarded. The great leaders understand this and with that understanding, they cultivate an innovative culture and take their organizations to the pinnacle of the unbelievable success of innovation. The key is to hold people accountable for bringing premium innovation results and reaching the high level of innovation management maturity.