As the late Peter F. Drucker once said, innovation “is capable of being practiced, capable of being learned.” However, as I have found throughout my career, innovation thrives in a culture driven by diversity, dialogue and discipline.
Fundamentally, I believe that every organization has the capacity to become innovative. As the late Peter F. Drucker once said, innovation “is capable of being practiced, capable of being learned.” However, as I have found throughout my career, innovation thrives in a culture driven by diversity, dialogue and discipline.
The creative energy sparked by diversity became most apparent to me when I headed up Stentor in the 1990s. Stentor, the then new national product and service development-company of Canada’s telephone companies, brought together employees from nine different corporate traditions, experiences and mindsets. As a start-up, we had access to a wealth of new ideas to explore and exploit.
But, we quickly discovered that tapping into this diversity required a new organizational structure. Otherwise, the same groups of people would simply end up talking to themselves. So instead of putting the engineers into an engineering department or lumping all the marketing people together, we broke down the silos. We introduced virtual teams and project-based work. We also cut the number of management levels in half. In effect, we created a much flatter, more agile organization where people formed teams, disbanded, and joined new teams.
In parallel with streamlining our corporate structure, we helped our people to unlearn old hierarchal behaviours and thereby enter into a new dialogue. We instituted corporate-wide training for all employees, including the executive team. We invited sales and customer service teams from the telephone companies to join us. Employees learned new ways of interacting with each other. They learned to vigorously reach out to customers and other stakeholders. Above all, they learned that the power of an idea lies in the idea itself — not in the position of the person who conceives it.
In addition, we made sure that knowledge sharing, idea generation and innovation became a discipline within Stentor. We introduced careful processes for discussing problems and opportunities and for evaluating, testing and deploying new products and services. Employees became directly accountable for their own projects, for setting their own goals and for planning how to reach them. The company’s compensation system was also dramatically redesigned. Instead of simply handing out year-end bonuses to worthy individuals, teams were generously rewarded for their breakthroughs, as and when results were achieved.
By leveraging diversity, by helping employees to dialogue more effectively and by introducing a discipline to the entire product and service development process, Stentor experienced a definite and positive cultural shift within a matter of months. More importantly, the change endured and accelerated results. During our last full year of operation, for instance, the value of the projects Stentor delivered to the phone companies exceeded $900 million – another year-over-year increase of 20 per cent. We also assisted in delivering $5.5 billion in national revenues and generated cost savings of $100 million.
During my time with Lucent Canada, our leadership team applied these three basic principles with similarly impressive results. And at Ivey, these same principles were leveraged to develop our exciting new Cross-Enterprise Leadership approach to business education. For example, we brought together a diversity of interests to look at the changes underway in business today. We entered into a new dialogue with our students, alumni, other university and community interests as well as the business community at large. And we’re embarking on a disciplined path forward for evaluating, testing and refining the Cross Enterprise Leadership concept – not only within our educational programs, but also within our research and daily operations.
As many of the articles in this edition of the Ivey Business Journal so vividly demonstrate, innovation is now imperative to the success of any organization. The good news is that innovation can be practiced and learned in a culture characterized by diversity, dialogue and discipline. The best news is that these cultures secure lasting results.