Boundaries, Blockers, and Overcoming the Limits of Innovation

March 5, 2020

In our “Boundaries, Blockers, and Overcoming the Limits of Innovation” Master Class, George White of Cantina discusses challenges innovators face and how to overcome them. David Crean of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts also shares insights.

During the call, they discussed:

  • Overcoming organizational inertia
  • How to use storytelling to garner support for innovation
  • Finding the right metrics to measure your projects
  • Best practices for diffusing innovation across a company

White is the Chief Innovation Officer at Cantina, a strategic design and development agency. Crean is the VP of Innovation at the health care company. Download slides from the presentation.

The Hazy Definition of Innovation

George White: If we look at Wikipedia…there’s a nice little quip in here, which shows that in 2014, a survey of literature found that there were over 40 different definitions of innovation. … I’m sure if I was to actually go and pull each of you…we’d find that for the 90 plus people on this call, there are 90 different definitions of innovation. And there’s nuance and subtlety to all of them.

The OECD has a really interesting thing where…they have this precise definition that they use. There’s product innovation, and process innovation, and marketing innovation, and organizational innovation. But I’m willing to bet that if we were looking at this, that their definition still doesn’t quite fit what your organization actually does — that there’s some disconnect between this and the way that you think and approach innovation…

David Crean: The important thing is to understand what it means to individuals that are going to be involved in decision making and execution in your organization. … For example, you might ask your leader of human resources, what innovation means, and they might say, “It’s fostering culture change and empowering associates in our organization to be innovative.” You ask your CTO, what innovation means and they might say, “Oh, it’s about exploring new technologies like blockchain and artificial intelligence and machine learning.” For every single executive in your C-suite, there is probably a different thing that they’re envisioning in their head when they hear the word innovation.

Get your executives in a room and you take them through an activity that forces them to [describe] what they mean by innovation. … Then you can collectively drive them towards which flavor or flavors do we want to take on as an organization given that everybody thinks somewhat differently about it.

Agreement vs. Alignment

George White: It’s actually really easy to get agreement for people. … You can probably sit down with three or four of your friends and say, “We should all go to dinner.” And I guarantee you, within a couple of seconds, you’ll probably all agree, either yes or no… But…where should you go? When should you go? … What neighborhood should you be in? That can take time — in the back and forth that that exists in those small interpersonal relationships. They exist in the business world just as well. And we see just as much of that.

David Crean: The way to tell if somebody’s agreeing with you or or willing to align with you has to do with their actual willingness to commit resources, their actual willingness to be mutually accountable for success, their willingness…to have metrics related to the success applied to their own compensation. Those sorts of things really are proof points of alignment that you can use to make sure that you don’t just have a passive agreement, that you have a committed level of commitment.

How Diversity Drives Innovation

George White: You need to figure out how to bring as many voices in the room as possible. That does not mean that your innovation team needs to represent every possible viewpoint, but it needs to have practices and processes for going out and reaching out to people.

David Crean: If you focus on getting making sure you have diverse perspectives, diverse experiences, and diverse skill sets, you will find that the other more traditional definitions of diversity related to age and gender and language and nationality and cultural background and sexual orientation and those sorts of things will automatically happen.

That’s one place you want to have diversity in the makeup of your team. But you also want to have diversity…in the people are the consumers who you’re testing your solutions with. And you always also want to have diversity in terms of the stakeholders that you’re bringing together.

How to Tell Your Story 

George White: We talked a lot about agreement, alignment, something that we actually did with Blue Cross [Blue Shield of Massachusetts] when we work with them [was to] figure out how to tell stories about the future that help everyone in the organization to say, “Oh, yeah, that’s actually exactly what we meant. That’s how we got to the terms that we want to have. That’s how we see the goals that we want to have. It tells us that we’ll be able to find a way to get to the future that we’re looking for.” So I think that telling stories…and [having] a shared vision can arise from being able to transmit this information.