Innovation as Usual: Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg says leaders need to be innovation architects

Posted: 07/30/2013
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Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, author of the recently published Harvard Business Press Review book Innovation as Usual: How to Help Your People Bring Great Ideas to Life, will be speaking at this year's Corporate Learning Week. Before he takes the stage as one of our keynote speakers in November, we sat down with him to discuss the key takeaways from his book as well as the topics he'll be covering at this year's conference. To see what Thomas will be talking about at this year's conference, check out his speaker page on our event site. Check out the video above or take a look at the transcript of the interview below. This video cast includes discussion on:

  • Steps leaders can take to become innovation architects
  • The importance of promoting focused innovation
  • How to escape from "brainstorm island" and instead lead sustainable and systematic innovation

Can you explain to us what you'll be speaking about at this year's conference?

I'm going to talk a little bit about my new book (Innovation as Usual: How to Help Your People Bring Great Ideas to Life), released with Harvard Business Press this spring, which I believe all the participants are getting a copy of. The essence of what the book is about is really the challenge of leading innovation as part of your everyday life in an organization. As chief learning officers, how can we help our managers become better at those challenges? That's the essence of this book and that's why we call it Innovation as Usual instead of going about business as usual.

One of the things you mention in this book is this idea of being an innovation architect. In most corporations today, how do leaders see their role in the company?

I think we see two variations with the leaders we work with. They either shy away from innovation. When saddled with the daily work, they ask: Can we really make this happen as well? Or you see a subset that embraces it very enthusiastically on a personal level where they think this is my chance to be creative and shine. The best innovative leaders create results through other people. How can you become what we call an innovation architect — creating an environment, creating the conditions that are necessary for people to innovate as part of their daily jobs?

You also talk about how leaders try to jump start innovation through corporate retreats or bringing a motivation speaker into the office, but those are one-off times to try and spark innovation. How do leaders go about creating sustainable and systematic innovation?

We talk about the need to escape from brainstorm island — the two-day really fantastic innovation-themed offsite. That's great, but what we found with most of our research, the challenge isn't to get the two days right, it's to get the other 363 days of the year. [These retreats] teach people that innovation is very different from what we do everyday, and that's dangerous.

Learning and training leaders are very focused on is employee behavior and how to make the workplace a more positive and cohesive environment. In your book, you note that people often focus exclusively on personality and overlook environmental factors. How do you suggest learning and training leaders work to help improve those environmental factors?

I think it's one of the most positive developments that we've seen in the learning and development space recently — the shift from saying innovation is about thinking differently to saying innovation is about acting differently. So the question becomes: How do we help people act differently as part of their daily lives? Fundamentally, there are two different approaches. You can try to impact who they are through training, inspiration and so on. And that part, we're fairly good at. What we're often missing out on is a very powerful other element in terms of effecting behavior, and that's the environment we work in. Is there a way to change the environment instead of trying to think that all change needs to go through the mind sets or the heads of the people? That's really the gist of this and why we talk about innovation architecture, creating that environment.

Another concept you introduce is the 5+1 types of behavior, ways you advocate to jumpstart a more innovative workplace. One of those behaviors is focus. I know that when people think of innovation, they think about allowing creativity abound. You're suggesting that people need to be able to focus still. How do you strike that balance between having employees focus on something specific while also allowing them to be creative and innovative?

We found that a lot of managers think that innovation is about giving people freedom. And that can work well if you're in an R&D department or you work on research. The problem with freedom is that it runs a great risk on not zooming in on the areas that are critical to the business. What we've seen in our research and following managers driving innovation and succeeding with innovation is really that they were very directive, going in and saying to their people: This is an area we'd like you to focus on. If you can find ideas here, we know it will matter to the business. That process —training our managers in the ability to focus in on innovation and to direct and guide the search for new ideas —that tends to be very powerful. I'm going to be talking about this more at the conference. It has the added benefit that it doesn't cost anything. If the barrier really is that we need more time and money for innovation, then that would be a hard barrier to deal with, but giving people guidance, that's something we can do if we can give people the tools how to do it.

Before I let you go, what are you most excited about at this year's conference?

I'm just tremendously excited about that this is a space I've seen going through a tremendous shift at the moment. I see a lot of interest in companies that really understood this thing about not just going for oh, let's inspire people, but really, how do we drive change into the daily behavior of what people do. I'm so psyched to see the list of fantastic the list of fantastic speakers that will be there. I'll be speaking, but I will be sitting in the rest of the seminars, as well, and listening intently.