HPE: Insights on Innovation

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HPE: Insights on Innovation

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.@HPE_LivingProg talks to @NetHope_org's @llwoodman about the power of #innovation http://3bl.me/23drsy #tech

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Lauren Woodman

Summary

Lauren Woodman, Chief Executive Officer of NetHope, a consortium of NGOs committed to changing the world through the power of technology and collaboration, shares her views on innovation with HPE Living Progress News.

Friday, February 12, 2016 - 7:55am

What does the term innovator mean to you?
Courage and persistence. Indomitable optimism. Someone who asks great questions because they are deeply curious.

I say that because I think innovation is really difficult. Despite the romantic notion of a lone person coming up with some great idea that will change the world, most innovation happens more incrementally.

I think innovators look at a problem, and start asking questions to get to the root of the real challenge—and then turn their attention to how to address the core issues.

I think innovators have the courage to try approaches that may not seem immediately evident, and the persistence to keep trying even in the face of failure. I think they are often driven by the optimism needed to keep trying a new approach, and are just as curious as to why something didn’t work.

Over the course of your career, are there any specific projects or accomplishments that make you particularly proud?
I have had the opportunity to work on literally dozens of big projects that make me proud. I was exceptionally lucky to find myself in the technology industry 25 years ago, and as the industry developed, I had the chance to work with amazing people and on projects that had global impact.

But the things that I am most proud of are far quieter moments, when I’ve had the opportunity to help a co-worker; mentor someone just starting their career; or encourage an employee to grow. Sometimes these have required hard discussions, but helping people find roles and positions in which they can be both successful and happy has been far more rewarding to me than any individual project.

How do you instill innovation into a company’s culture?
I don’t know that there’s a simple formula for instilling innovation that works for every organization, but there are well-documented practices that innovative companies share: an openness to experimentation, a real willingness to embrace failure and learn from mistakes, incentivizing collaboration and creativity and a discipline around identifying the right questions to solve.

The big challenge, of course, is that these things are hard to do well, and for many organizations, they aren’t natural or comfortable behaviors. It’s not enough to create an ‘innovation lab’ and hope for the best—organizations have to embrace and support the organizational change that’s needed to transform and model the supportive norms consistently.

For example, performance management systems aren’t generally set up to reward repeated failure—but innovation requires us to try, fail and learn. So how do we create systems that reward and incentivize those that do experiment and may fail—but then leverage what’s been learned to keep chipping away at the core problem until that moment of breakthrough? How do we help employees learn from failure, and how do managers learn how to coach their teams to share and build upon that knowledge?

How do you instill that into a company’s culture? Well, much like innovation itself, I think you have to keep working at it. You have to have a clear vision of what your particular innovative culture is going to look like and then you have to look at all of the different factors that influence that culture—from leadership to organizational structure to front-line management training—and work at them consistently.

I think innovators look at a problem, and start asking questions to get to the root of the real challenge—and then turn their attention to how to address the core issues.

I think innovators have the courage to try approaches that may not seem immediately evident, and the persistence to keep trying even in the face of failure. I think they are often driven by the optimism needed to keep trying a new approach, and are just as curious as to why something didn’t work.

Over the course of your career, are there any specific projects or accomplishments that make you particularly proud?
I have had the opportunity to work on literally dozens of big projects that make me proud. I was exceptionally lucky to find myself in the technology industry 25 years ago, and as the industry developed, I had the chance to work with amazing people and on projects that had global impact.

But the things that I am most proud of are far quieter moments, when I’ve had the opportunity to help a co-worker; mentor someone just starting their career; or encourage an employee to grow. Sometimes these have required hard discussions, but helping people find roles and positions in which they can be both successful and happy has been far more rewarding to me than any individual project.

How do you instill innovation into a company’s culture?
I don’t know that there’s a simple formula for instilling innovation that works for every organization, but there are well-documented practices that innovative companies share: an openness to experimentation, a real willingness to embrace failure and learn from mistakes, incentivizing collaboration and creativity and a discipline around identifying the right questions to solve.

The big challenge, of course, is that these things are hard to do well, and for many organizations, they aren’t natural or comfortable behaviors. It’s not enough to create an ‘innovation lab’ and hope for the best—organizations have to embrace and support the organizational change that’s needed to transform and model the supportive norms consistently.

For example, performance management systems aren’t generally set up to reward repeated failure—but innovation requires us to try, fail and learn. So how do we create systems that reward and incentivize those that do experiment and may fail—but then leverage what’s been learned to keep chipping away at the core problem until that moment of breakthrough? How do we help employees learn from failure, and how do managers learn how to coach their teams to share and build upon that knowledge?

How do you instill that into a company’s culture? Well, much like innovation itself, I think you have to keep working at it. You have to have a clear vision of what your particular innovative culture is going to look like and then you have to look at all of the different factors that influence that culture—from leadership to organizational structure to front-line management training—and work at them consistently.

What is the biggest myth about innovation?
Everyone wants to be ‘innovative’ and every organization I’ve ever worked with has emphasized how it is or is becoming, more ‘innovative’. It’s the catchword of our time. Certainly, both organizations and individuals should, and many do, focus on finding new, better and more efficient ways of doing things. But all too often we think of innovation as a ‘big-bang’ moment when some great idea that will change the world strikes and immediately the problem at hand is solved. That sometimes happens, of course, but it’s rare.

If we limit our definition of innovation so narrowly, I think it undermines our willingness to do the hard work that innovation requires. Great ideas evolve, involve trial and error, and demand grit, creativity, focus and optimism. We have to experiment, adjust, learn, and try again—and through that process, good ideas become great ideas, and then they become transformative ideas.

Do you have an ‘Aha!’ moment that inspired your path?
My “Aha!’ moment was a pretty simple one. When I was a college freshman, I had a conversation with my advisor in which I was complaining about what I felt was an unfairly low grade from a professor in another class. Having done fairly well in high school, I had a certain cockiness about me. My advisor was sympathetic and read the paper. I remember pacing outside his office waiting for him to finish, waiting for my moment of vindication. I fully expected him to open the door and tell me that he was rushing over to his colleague’s office to correct the injustice that had been done to me.

It didn’t work out that way. When he invited me back in, I sat across from desk eager to hear how great that paper was. His only comment was “Professor X was quite generous.” I was crushed. He was gentle in his delivery, but clearly told me that if I expected to be successful in college, actual hard work would be required. And I hadn’t done the work.

It was a kick-in-the-pants moment for me. Given my cockiness, I could have reacted angrily. But for whatever reason, after the shock wore off, I took the feedback to heart. My approach changed completely, and to this day, I remain convinced that if you want good results, you have to work hard for them.

What is the greatest opportunity of our time?
To solve the massive inequality of economic opportunities. I firmly believe this is possible. It won’t be easy, but the global nature of the world today, the availability of technologies to help us solve problems, and the ability to distribute learning and share creation gives us a better chance than ever. We might not get it 100% right, but we can, and should, try.

Living Progress News is a quarterly digital publication that spotlights stories about people, ideas and technology uniting to solve the world's toughest challenges. Click here to see more and subscribe.

Keywords: Innovation & Technology | Diversity & Inclusion | Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) | Innovation & Technology | Lauren Woodman | NetHope | Responsible Business & Employee Engagement | Sustainable Finance & Socially Responsible Investment

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