At our recent INNOVATE! 2011 conference, business strategist Geoffrey Moore stated, “This is the century where we’ve got to play away games.” He was referring to the fact that, although the United States successfully pioneered the outsourcing movement, we’re still innovating for the “home market.” If we want to maintain our competitive advantage, we need to build global innovation systems that leverage local talent to access business opportunities in local markets.
But how do you reinvent your company to rise to such a challenge? Simply working on a global scale doesn’t guarantee a new wave of innovative thought. How do you realistically create change within your global network to catalyze innovation in a foreign market?
Innovation is not happenstance, nor is it a one-size-fits-all process. However, there are practical steps you can take to foster innovation on a global level. My own company, GlobalLogic, employs over 5,500 software R&D professionals in 20 facilities across four continents. Due to this broad global footprint and the highly creative nature of our work, we have gained a fair amount of insight into how to nurture and harvest innovation on an international playing field. In the spirit of Stephen Covey, I’m presenting these insights as the “seven practical steps for building a global culture of innovation.”
1. Obtain leadership commitment
The commitment to innovation starts at the top. The CEO and his/her most senior team must understand and value innovation, recognize it and make regular investments in the key factors required to nurture a global culture of innovation.
Think carefully about how your leadership views innovation. Ask yourself:
- Is innovation a core value?
- Is innovation supported by your other values and processes?
- Is innovation reflected in your internal measurement and reward systems?
- Do your customers value innovation in your relationship with them?
- Is marketing effectively communicating the impact innovation has in your products and services?
- Does finance understand the positive impact that innovation has on your P&L statement, or are investments viewed as cost items with a phantom ROI?
Innovation is both a powerful concept and a popular buzz word. How top management looks at this concept is the number-one, make-it-or-break-it criterion for creating a culture of innovation.
2. Hire and nurture the right people
Once you achieve a commitment from the top, it’s time to build from the bottom up. This starts with hiring the right people. Notice I said hiring the right people, not skill sets. Great skill sets will take you where you want to go. Great people will take you to places you never knew existed.
When recruiting new talent, target individuals who are curious, creative and communicative. Do they ask questions? Do they proactively look for ways to “make things better?” Can they effectively communicate their ideas to a team? Regardless of where your new hires are located, these shared characteristics will form the bedrock for a global culture of innovation.
When we hear a client say that our engineers took them to an entire new level of thinking, that’s when we know we hired the right people. But don’t assume your job is done when you bring new talent on board. Make a point to ask your employees where they want to go in their careers and then help them get there through additional skills training, apprentice and mentoring programs, career development and opportunities to work on a variety of projects.
3. Equip employees for success
In addition to hiring the right people, give them the tools and environment they need to maximize their creativity in a global context. Invest in continuing education opportunities, cultivate innovation rewards programs and create open working environments that encourage “cross-pollination” among employees in different focus areas and geographies. Innovation does not have a comfort zone; you need to break the status quo.
For example, when engineers working on a medical device connect with engineers working on streaming media, you get a product that will turn both industries on their heads. When these two groups operate in different geographies, it’s even more important to invest in tools that will allow them to connect, collaborate and innovate. At GlobalLogic, we use a specialized collaboration platform called Velocity™ to manage the software development process among our distributed employees. We also deployed a rich, contextual social network that connects these people across teams and time zones, as well as an innovation-focused platform and rewards system that encourages new ideas. None of it was easy, but the results have been impressive.
4. Take an Agile approach
We are quite clearly in the midst of a tsunami of accelerating change. Agile software development practices are a fantastic way to enable change and make room for innovation by adding frequent feedback mechanisms to the software creation process. However, our culture for innovation goes way beyond software, and we find ourselves applying these Agile, iterative approaches to other parts of our business. Creating an Agile workplace, creating an Agile culture, and creating an Agile approach to internal systems, processes and tools, and even financial management, is core. Why?
One key reason is that the iterative nature of Agile thinking accelerates learning. By encouraging continuous feedback cycles and incremental improvements, you never suffer the proverbial “two steps forward, one step back.” This flexible planning process also creates space for innovation. When your employees present you with a great new idea, do they expect to hear “we will get to that next year” or “we will get to that in the next sprint?”
5. Understand “design” as a thought process
Much has been written about the design of Apple’s products. They have raised the design bar from a simple aesthetic to make “intuitive” a “must-have” characteristic for technology solutions in all the categories in which they compete. Design-centered thinking produces empathy for the context of a problem, encourages creativity in looking at ideas, and supports a rational analysis of possible solutions. This approach has brought us the tablet, the multi-touch mouse, the rubberbanding UI, and more. It provides a practical canvas for innovation.
Where possible, embrace design as a problem-solving technique to encourage the creative exploration of solutions. An analytical approach is great for measuring the effectiveness of ideas, but applying it too early in the creative process can snuff these new ideas before they are fully developed and understood.
6. Embrace diversity
Going back to the Apple example, I want to highlight how its 1997 “Think Different” campaign effectively relaunched its status as an innovation leader. Why is diversity of thought so closely linked to innovation? Because great minds do not, in fact, think alike. A global network brings together a multitude of great minds that see challenges, opportunities and solutions differently. They also operate differently, which means you must apply geographic-specific management systems to most effectively channel the conversation.
But with the right infrastructure, tools and processes in place to manage these complementary cultures and viewpoints, you can create truly differentiated, cutting-edge products that could never be produced by like-minded individuals. Several of our clients work with GlobalLogic labs in multiple geographies to take advantage of the unique skill sets and creative processes in those geographies. It also allows them to leverage local talent to build or adapt products for local markets. This is an increasingly savvy approach to product development. Goldman Sachs predicts that the BRIC countries may together account for 41 percent of the world’s market capitalization by 2030.
7. Persist in your innovation efforts
Sometimes innovation is more about perspiration than inspiration. In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell repeatedly talks about the “10,000 Hours Rule,” which claims that the key to success in any field is to practice a specific task for 10,000 hours. So, yes, practice really does make perfect. To again quote Geoffrey Moore, “Although one way to waste your innovation investment is to fail, [a natural risk of innovating], the one that really drives you crazy is to not go far enough.” Creating a global culture of innovation isn’t easy and it isn’t fast. But the benefits of leveraging a global network of smart, motivated, creative people with vastly different viewpoints and talents is more than worth it.
Innovation is a hot topic today as America tries to regain leadership, revitalize industry, and rebuild its economy. For GlobalLogic, this journey started over a decade ago. Across business cycles, technology trends and industry fads, our focus on innovation and our global approach to fostering it keeps us grounded and gives us confidence to explore new ideas and invest in new areas.
Shashank Samant is President at GlobalLogic. Fortune 100 technology leaders and cutting-edge emerging companies rely on GlobalLogic to build innovative software that provides a competitive edge in the global economy. With global innovation hubs on three continents, GlobalLogic allows clients to tap a highly skilled talent pool that delivers leading-edge cloud, mobile, SaaS and social applications. The company is connected globally by its award-winning “Velocity” innovation platform. Backed by tier-one investors Goldman Sachs, NEA and Sequoia Capital, GlobalLogic is headquartered in the U.S. and has global offices in Argentina, China, Germany, India, Israel, Ukraine and the United Kingdom. Click here for more information.