Driving to work this morning, I paused for the school bus, braked for wayward kittens, and sipped coffee while a train rattled through the intersection. My commute follows the same path each day and typically allows time for unforeseen events. In contrast, companies today are driving on an innovation speedway. The Information Age has accelerated the pace of change to a point where agility is required for survival as well as success.

Prior to the age of instant access, organizations operated in a linear, cause-and-effect environment, much like my morning commute. Three to five-year destinations were established, and a leader’s key task was to navigate variances back to the plan. Today, we ride on an innovation superhighway, where chaos is the norm and agility is the only hope for competitiveness. Finishing the race successfully requires:

  • agile leadership, to respond quickly and decisively to each variation;
  • a refined process, to accelerate implementation;
  • technology that incorporates current advances; and
  • power from employee potential to innovate.
  1. Agile Leadership—Variation is the Norm, Not the Exception

Driving is completely different at 100 miles an hour. The finish line is clear, but targets change instantaneously, based on variables like: track conditions, other drivers, and proximity to the curves. Decisions must be swift and decisive, because a simple misstep, or an unforeseen event, may have an unpredictable and amplified impact that leads to loss in position.

Organizations are similar, but their “finish line” may be less clear. Prior to the Information Age, leaders were rewarded for identifying a roadmap that defined success, then sticking to it. Today, drivers of business must recognize within mere moments whether the variables around them represent new risks or opportunities. The target is no longer clear, because it is in constant motion. Industry changes, competitors, and cultural context all play key roles in success.

Identifying and valuing variation must become a cultural norm, as it increases creativity and mitigates risks. This practice is gaining traction, but does not come intuitively to many Gen Xers and Baby Boomers. With Millennials and Gen Z making up 75% of the workforce by 2025, spontaneity, diversity, and inclusion will be intrinsic qualities. Until then, progressive organizations must prepare by identifying the source of employee energy and igniting an innovation culture.

  1. The Process—Accelerate Implementation with Relevance & Actionable Steps

As SVP of Innovation for two global companies, I witnessed countless ineffective ideation programs, internal and external to our organizations. The ones that provided the most frustration typically included a general call for employees to “Submit your big ideas!” Companies that encourage random ideas from employees run the risk of discouraging innovation because if the idea is not aligned to strategy, it is rarely implemented. With an already overburdened workload, irrelevant ideas are seen as a distraction. When seemingly good ideas are not put into practice, frustration, demotivation and disengagement predictably result.

Sustainable innovation starts with a thoroughly defined problem, this ensures ideas are relevant. Relevance accelerates implementation. Imagine being asked to drop what you have been working on for the last six months to try something innovative that has nothing to do with your division’s business goals, needs, or measures of success. Like Newton’s Third Law of Motion, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Unless there is strong leadership support for the idea, chances are, it will be met with resistance and its momentum stopped.

In contrast, consider Newton’s Second Law of Motion, that when force is applied to an object traveling in the same direction, it creates acceleration. And, the larger the mass of the object, the more its velocity may be increased. The more relevant, prioritized, and critical an idea is to the organization’s success, the more quickly it will be implemented. This simple paradigm shift can turn fluffy, cost center innovation programs into tangible, profit center generators.

The other critical factor for executing high speed innovation is providing only one to three actionable steps. Missing either relevance or simple, actionable expectations nearly always means the idea will sit idle. Adding clear direction, and these proven behavior-change techniques keeps creativity flowing, generates engagement and demonstrates empowerment.

For example, when leading innovation at Balfour Beatty Investments, we improved idea implementation and won new business by narrowing the process to align with director strategy. We went from “blue sky” ideas of all sorts to a very focused topic of “Identify how smart meters and resident behavior effect energy use in student housing.” With this focus, existing suppliers, subject matter experts, and potential clients were included in the ideation process. An emerging leader team used the company’s “i-Lab” process to power employee potential while generating new ways of incorporating technologies. The initiative ultimately led to new business. Balfour Beatty Investments became more agile because the i-Lab targets changed periodically based on actual needs.

  1. Technology Integration

On-line, at-a-glance comparisons allow savvy shoppers to identify the slightest improvements. The pace of change and availability of information make technological improvements more critical than ever before in history. While many companies have an eye on product or development, they may be forgetting about the integration of machine systems, cybernetics.

NASA employee, George Washington, handles clerical work more quickly and efficiently than ever before. He never complains about working late hours or needs a cup of coffee. George is a bot who takes in information from emails and identifies job candidate suitability—something formerly completed by HR personnel. He represents a new type of diversity within organizations—Cognitive Diversity.

Cognitive Diversity, simply put, includes different ways of thinking. It consists of both humans (cognitive thinking) and machines (cognitive technologies). Today, automation is pouring into the workplace at an accelerating rate. Cognitive Technologies involve: robotic process automation, traditional machine learning, natural language processing, and rule-based expert systems. Witness this Artificial Intelligence (AI) in our everyday lives as it handles answering services, account balance inquiries, and payment services.

Most companies begin by integrating AI and other machine systems to replace the repetitive, “low hanging fruit” projects. This allows them to achieve quick wins early in the adoption process. The idea of accepting these new “employees” at work as equals, however, can initially cause concerns about long-term job security.

According to research from Accenture, 86% of marketers believe AI will make their industry’s work more efficient and effective as practical applications already include processes like: precision targeting, dynamic ad creation, and marketing automation. In these cases, adopting Cognitive Diversity into the workforce improves efficiency, increases accuracy, and frees humans to focus on more complex tasks.

Data from Emarsys shows widespread inclusion of AI by retail marketers worldwide:

  • 54% Personalizing customer experience and behavior across channels
  • 52% Managing real-time customer interactions
  • 48% Identifying or reorganizing customers across channels
  • 41% Targeting appropriate audiences for new customer acquisition

In NASA’s case, the organization feels that Cognitive Diversity, through the inclusion of bots, is a way to meet shrinking budgets and allow existing humans to focus on higher-level tasks. Thus far, George Washington has been met with open arms, and NASA plans to bring on a Thomas Jefferson bot soon. Their experience shows that integrating machines as cognitive tools has improved the bottom line.

While demographic diversity is important for success, including new ways of thinking and automation will expand organizational agility and innovation. As cybernetic models improve, they will become more commonplace when organizations consider the functions of diversity and inclusion executives. Embracing cybernetics, the science of communications, and automatic control systems in both machines and living things, may sound like science fiction. But in reality, it boosts agility, innovation, and profits.

  1. Powering Organizational Potential

Actualizing employee and organizational potential provides the fuel needed to power execution. This can be done through leveraging variation and managing strengths.  Organizations that leverage employee ideas and knowledge meet product revenue targets 46% more often and product launch dates 47% more often than their industry peers. Companies also have opportunities to expand beyond traditional, demographics-based methods. For example, cognitive variation (differences in the way people think) and cybernetic diversity (integrating machine technologies with human systems) both improve performance and increase competitiveness.

Most companies already use traditional cognitive tools such as: Myers-Briggs, DISC, Management by Strengths, and the Predictive Index to highlight an employee’s preferences. While these tools increase an employee’s communications ability with peers, without the relevance of strategic alignment, the tools fall short of improving profitability.

Newer tools, such as the AEM-cube, which has been adopted in the U.S. by organizations like: IBM, Yahoo, Apple, Stanford and Purdue, maps employee preferences to different phases of the naturally occurring growth curves (Sigmoid “S” curves). This innovative, cybernetic-based, 3-D model can be used to reflect a team of employees simultaneously, matching talent to need, based upon an organization’s current location on a growth curve. Employees can quickly understand where they contribute most powerfully, and employers can identify gaps of risk.

In summary, driving fast in today’s economy is the only option. Success under this condition means organizations must be agile, strategically relevant, and actualize organization and employee potential. These factors improve inclusion, innovation and consequently, profits.