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Talent Development Leader

Continuous Innovation Isn’t a One-Person Job

Friday, December 15, 2023

What does it mean to innovate strategically and manage the ability to continuously do so?

It may seem like a luxury for colleagues to consider you a strategic innovator, but continuous innovation isn’t really about an inspirational wellspring that turns into a magic deck of cards on demand. Continuous innovation is about the deep, relentless work of listening to and understanding department, regional, and global systems in the company; it’s an intentional gap analysis from an organizational perspective with an eye to inclusion and process improvements through new directions.

Thinking outside the box is a skill

Across the years, in multiple roles, each of which carried varying degrees of strategic management, the challenge I most embraced was continuous innovation. Thinking outside the box and developing project proposals that contribute to moving teams, departments, or the organization into new territories is a real challenge; it requires much more listening and sleuthing than anything that comes from within.

Of course, there is no magic to be had in the world, so I must confess that the skill didn’t come overnight—nor without a lot of practice, which is a nice way of referring to failure and recovery.

One notable experience was in a summer kickoff meeting for a new e-learning platform that my team was set to deploy in a few months. Eager to gain buy-in, we met with the regional head of operations to discuss support for moving all operations, onboarding, annual certification, and compliance through the platform.

As we dove into additional ways the new learning management system could eventually support global and regional operations, we talked about transforming a cross-functional skills matrix record into a real-time report in the LMS. I boldly offered that we would have that ready for them in the coming year.

However, I didn’t understand the data flow, departments involved, job and skills leveling implications, or the IT connections behind a seemingly benign matrix with variously filled circles designating skill levels for key functions within the operations process flow.

It all seemed straightforward, and I was eager to land this big internal customer. Yet, it’s been six years since that promise, and I’m still trying to make that report a reality. (Thankfully, the vice president of operations and I are long, close colleagues.)

Taking a macroview yields better results

Why is it taking so long? I assumed that a seemingly simple data visualization chart representing cross-functional skills capabilities would be equally simple to construct because I didn’t stop to ask all the proper business questions, nor did I explore the underlying business systems the chart represented, thereby neglecting to respect the complexity of the presented information.

With time and effort, I have developed a deeper understanding, enabling the growth of innovative machine learning projects that are now at the core of recognized innovative designs within the entire organization.

The lessons I have learned led to a maturation of business empathy and questioning to drive continuous innovation for deep collaboration across departments.

I have worked at Smith University since 2001 in a handful of departments and roles. Each of the roles exposed me to many different processes and views of the local and global organization.

Learning to fit in with the different groups, to ask open questions about how they handle and prioritize processes, and how they share and coordinate responsibilities (or not) with other groups has been eye-opening. I’ve learned to find, understand, and appreciate the differences, even within a seemingly homogenous team.

Importantly, those differences are critical pieces to the continuous cycle of process improvement. Talent development specialists know that processes that have become habit are rarely what they seem on the surface. Furthermore, even stakeholders engaged in daily processes may not recognize opportunities for innovation, development, and cross-functional synergies.

A deeper understanding of processes is a ripe source for continuous innovation that a TD professional can use to shed light on and develop new methodologies for the team and organization.

Taking a macroview is one of the most productive sources of continuous inspiration: Listen effectively and then see how stakeholder projects overlap and present opportunities for cross-functional learning to improve efficiencies or the effectiveness of the business process.

Part TD, part ethnography

Why do TD professionals hold such opportune roles for providing inspiration for cross-functional innovation and synergy development? I believe it is because we are capable of being corporate ethnographers, able to collect others’ stories—the way people go about their tasks, innovating on a daily basis—and pull granular data into an objective and knowledgeable understanding. When we share those insights with stakeholders, we offer a new perspective on existing processes and a chance to break habits.

Continuous innovation is not necessarily some anointed capability that only a few inspired people possess as a skill. Rather, I’ve learned that each of us can contribute as a proactive strategist for the team or organization.

Read more from Talent Development Leader.

About the Author

Lisa Ann Cairns is vice president of L&D at Smith University where she oversees content creation and enhances talent development for all of Smith’s global offices, operations, and distribution hubs. Prior to that position, Cairns served in many roles for Smith and Smith-affiliated entities, including as chief strategy officer for ZettaWorks and vice president of EcoStrategy for ONTILITY.

Before her tenure at Smith, Cairns was a professor of linguistic anthropology and taught at several higher education institutions, including Texas A&M University; the University of Michigan; Northwestern University; and her alma mater, the University of Chicago.

Cairns earned her doctorate and master of arts degree in linguistics from the University of Chicago, during which time she received the prestigious National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Hofstra University, where she was the institution’s first woman undergraduate to receive a Fulbright-Hayes Grant for independent research prior to attending graduate school.

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