Leading Holistic Innovation

As a leader, how might you ask questions about your organization and it’s readiness to innovate holistically and it’s ability to recruit and retain creative talent? Here’s a look at four key factors of culture that I’ve identified as being crucial to innovation success. Each is followed up with a few questions to get you started on assessing your organization. Any answers that are vague, cliche, or unfamiliar will give you direction for where to explore. I call these four elements SKILs, an acronym for the “skills” and qualities necessary for innovation.

Exploring the 4 SCILs in detail

1) Service to the Greater Good - is there a meaningful purpose beyond profit?

  • What’s the company’s purpose, beyond profit? How relevant is that purpose in guiding innovation at all levels? Can leadership articulate a vision for impact of this purpose and personalize it - what’s it going to do for people? 

  • Can people in the innovation teams clearly articulate what the purpose and vision mean to them personally and give examples of how it stimulates their creative thinking?

  • How meaningful do people in the organization find their work? How is this measured? [1]

  • Does leadership regularly act in service to the good of their team, group, organization, and customer (rather than themselves)?

“Innovation thrives when serving meaningful purpose.”

2) Collaboration - how do you cultivate it?

  • How is sharing of information encouraged, especially among innovators? What’s the emotional atmosphere at work? Is there a constructive feedback methodology?

  • Who has “ownership” of the responsibility to innovate and how is it measured?

  • Are KPIs in line with innovation goals? For example, are there team-oriented KPIs as well as individual? Does the bonus structure support collaboration? Are there any (competitive) structures that work counter to collaboration?

  • What checks and balances exist to avoid abuse of power?

Innovation thrives with sharing information, ongoing feedback, and servant leadership.”

3) Inclusion - is the people strategy up to date and in sync with the innovation strategy?

  • Data shows diversity = innovation, IF that diversity is harnessed. [2] That’s a definition of“inclusion.” Is commitment to diversity & inclusion a given with the organization’s leadership? If so, how is that reflected in the composition of leadership at all levels in the organization?

  • How is diversity connected to business strategy? Are business groups accountable for diversity, or is it still seen as something for HR to solve? Who “owns the issue?” [3]

  • What initiatives do you have in place to to promote cognitive diversity in the organization, from styles of communication and feedback, to recruiting, talent development and promotion? [4]

  • When you bring in outside experts, are they diverse in terms of gender, nationality, race, age, business sectors, perspectives and experience?

  • For customers, are user profiles diverse? What’s being done to support a more diverse pool of customers having access to technology, or testing products or services? Do innovation teams include at least one person who matches the profile of the customer?

“Innovation thrives with the many inputs that cognitive diversity stimulates.”

4) Learning culture - is it lived, breathed, shared, supported?

  • Does the organization emphasize curiosity and learning along with results? How?

  • Is “growth mindset” common knowledge, and is it referred to regularly? [5]

  • Is self-reflection and team-communication reflection a routine part of retrospectives, as well as content and job-to-be-done oriented reflection?

“Innovation thrives within a strong learning culture.”

When there is more than 65% alignment on these 4 factors, I’d make a good bet that the company is already making big strides in their innovation efforts, or is about to. They are thinking systematically and holistically. They are already well informed about what’s needed for a culture of innovation. People are going to be engaged because they can have personal impact, can contribute, and develop. There is ownership of the innovation challenge, and support from the top.

If the score is low on these four factors, or the answers are vague, or general cliches, then the issue is about culture. That means you have a leadership problem, or a diversity problem (which is a leadership problem), or both. No snazzy innovation lab is going to fix culture and leadership, but they can develop in tandem.

the connection to attracting creative talent

No doubt you’ll be looking to recruit and retain talent to fuel your innovation efforts. Here’s a clue: be an inspiring place for creative people to work. Smart, creative people are intrinsically motivated by challenging work, and live to be in a state of flow as often as possible. Innovation makes work relevant. This means, according to Netflix former Chief Talent Officer Patty McCord who writes in her book Powerful: building a culture of freedom and responsibility, “What problem is it that we need to solve? What needs to happen that’s not happening now?” Creative problem solving and curiosity can become a way of life, and can be applied to everything one touches.

Holistic innovation can help build a great place to work that attracts and retains talent. 

Work is inherently meaningful when it is a creative process that encourages our personal development and allows us to fully apply ourselves. Meaningful work is known to be one of the top factors in talent retention, especially among workers under 35. This combination of qualities is how I would describe the mindset of an artist, or a musician in my case. High-level musicians almost always find their work meaningful and engaging (at any age - some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever worked with were in their 70s and 80s). Musicians never sit around talking about purpose and meaning, responsibility or engagement - these qualities are inherently embodied, and passed on from one generation to the next. I believe these states of mind and the behaviors that accompany them can be brought into any workplace, and are crucial to innovation in particular. Talented people are just waiting for the opportunity to apply themselves and feel alive at work.

Don’t be predictable!

The four SCIL elements of culture - Service, Learning, Inclusion and Collaboration - are cornerstones in developing holistic innovation. You can bet that any savvy, creative thinker is looking at these factors when considering a workplace. If you want someone brilliant at innovation, then you have to create an environment in which various kinds of thinkers and personalities can thrive.

It takes time to change culture. In the meantime, if you’re leading innovation, be innovative about how you hire and put together teams. Take cues from companies like Slack and BTS consulting. Have people around who are smart in various ways. For inspiration, check out Belbin Team Roles, Erin Meyer’s Culture Map, or Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. Check out online courses and tools from IDEO. If you want to stretch yourself more, step out of the business world and into the world of theater and movement improvisation. For example, read the Viewpoints Book by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau. Twist your brain (and body) around composition techniques that incorporates Space, Shape, Time, Emotion, Movement, and Story. This kind of work will attune your perception skills, which will impact your empathy and lateral thinking. 

If you want to lead creativity, be adventurous in your own process. In addition to leadership development to build a culture for innovation, and employing methods such as design thinking, stretch the ways in which you are considering the kinds of cognitive diversity you might recruit and how it can add to your culture. Don’t be predictable! That is an exciting and attractive quality for creative people.


[1] by for example, comparing the employee engagement score over the last two years. Or, what’s been the attrition rate among high-potentials or outstanding contributors?

[2]  https://hbr.org/2013/12/how-diversity-can-drive-innovation; https://hbr.org/2018/07/the-other-diversity-dividend and https://hbr.org/2016/11/why-diverse-teams-are-smarter; https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/17-067_b5578676-e44c-40aa-a9d8-9e72c287afe8.pdf

[3]  Jessica Parissi, President BTS USA on creating gender parity https://www.workforce.com/2018/07/19/gender-parity-in-the-workplace-is-possible-we-did-it-you-can-too/

[4] Do you use data and AI being to compensate for bias (rather than add to it)? Are hiring are job descriptions run through an anti-bias service like Textio? Are CVs made “blind” by erasing gender, age and race? Are leadership role requirements clearly defined and are all kinds people rotated to get necessary skills to be eligible for promotions? Do you measure how much face-time with leaders entry-level people have, and do you make sure it’s equal for males and females?

[5]  see Carol Dweck’s book Mindset and her research at https://mindsetonline.com/whatisit/about/index.html

Laura Carmichael