Climbing Aboard the Innovation Train 6

Climbing Aboard the Innovation Train

14.8 min read

Tom Hollinger

Climbing aboard the innovation train involves far more than finding a connection point and taking a simple, casual, short-term ride to the next station. Organizations that truly want to embark on the path to innovation must be prepared for a complex, dynamic journey; and they need to be committed for the long term. The notions of creativity and innovation may seem simple enough; however, the engines of innovation trains engage many crucial, integrated parts that work together in harmony. Between the engine and the caboose are a whole variety of different rail cars and containers, carrying all kinds of cargo. Stations need to be built, schedules need to be made, destinations need to be identified, tickets need to be sold, and people will need to have a reason for getting on board.

This article uses the metaphor of a train ride towards the future to give a clearer picture of what the innovation train might look like. It demonstrates where some of the stops along the way might be, brings ideas to life, and explains how the journey might be made more interesting and productive. You won’t have to strap on your seat belts for most of the ride, but by the end, you might want to hold on tighter while maintaining a flexible grip: the ride might get bumpy, and you may find yourself needing to shift positions as you put these ideas into practice. And don’t be surprised if the train moves faster and faster as we get closer to the future. That is just the way the innovation train works. So, put away any preconceived notions that you have, open up your mind to some new ideas, and come along for the ride.


As Stanley Gryskiewicz, author of Positive Turbulence: Developing Climates for Creativity, Innovation, and Renewal, pointed out, “the workplace is in such a state of flux that even those who never experienced the placidity of the 1950s find it hard to keep up.” He also noted that the pace of change is rapidly accelerating and that organizations can’t afford to wait on consumers or fall behind the competition. The “Partnership for 21st Century Skills,” which advocates readiness for each student, also acknowledges the need for innovation in today’s global economy. They and their members facilitate the process by providing tools and resources that combine “four Cs” with “the three Rs.” In addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic, today’s requirements include “critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation.” So, from the start, it is important to recognize that the time to begin building innovation into one’s organizational model is now.

One important consideration is that innovation can’t flourish unless it develops in accommodating environments. Stanley Gryskiewicz suggested that it is possible to harness the turbulence of dramatic, relentless change by establishing energetic and creative cultures. Like Michael Michalko, who wrote Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-thinking Techniques and Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius, Gryskiewicz noted that creativity and innovation don’t need to be random. They can be encouraged and cultivated to provide strategic advantage. Doing so, however, should involve getting cycles of creativity and innovation into the DNA of the organization, which means that organizational vision, mission, purpose, and strategic objectives need to be linked somehow to the innovation train. Values, organizational culture, and organizational design all play a role in establishing, encouraging, and supporting an environment where innovation can flourish. They also help to keep the innovation train on track.

Another important consideration is that innovation doesn’t need to come only from within an organization or industry. James Utterback, who authored Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation, noted that “innovations have not come from the industry leaders as much as from outsiders.” There are at least two lessons to be learned from this revelation: (1) don’t just look internally for great ideas, and (2) develop and implement them before the competition has an opportunity to do so. In addition, it won’t hurt to have a plan for when the competition responds, because it most likely will—and sooner than later if the innovation is really worthwhile. Coupled with this idea is the fact that technologies have multiple roles in the innovation cycle. New technological innovations are discovered, and then people find innovative ways to apply them. This can also have a tertiary impact as growth in new applications creates demand for products, services, and support.

One last consideration before climbing aboard the innovation train is that innovations aren’t only generated in the science and technology sectors. As Julie Hare pointed out in an article she wrote for Campus Review, humanities, arts, and social sciences also play a role in comprehensive innovation systems. Furthermore, the process of generating ideas and then having them adopted, supported, and implemented takes synergy. Stated differently, the process of innovation is a collective effort that cuts across multiple disciplines and engages multiple people.

In an interview with Chuck Frey, Robert Tucker of The Innovation Resource noted that innovation is:

“an all-enterprise imperative….a systematic process of discovering, selecting and implementing ideas that add value, differentiate and ignite growth. Your company’s next breakthrough might not be a new product at all. It might come from entering a new market, or otherwise changing your business model. It could come from the logistics department or the payroll department or – gasp – human resources.”

Engines of Innovation

A casual review of literature and a little research on the internet reveals that one could easily argue the engines of innovation are research universities, industry research activities, or even the government. Some people might also argue that small businesses are the engines of innovation. However, this article takes a broader perspective that focuses on individuals. Doing so establishes a basis for the argument that creative individuals and creative thinking techniques are the primary engines of innovation—not organizations.

Although creative people with creative ideas are the engines of innovation, these people need an accommodating environment for creativity and innovation to flourish. What’s more, there needs to be a support mechanism for advancing and implementing ideas. That takes financial resources and emotional support. One could even say that organizations need to provide the rail cars on the innovation train with climate control.


With a conventional train, cars are coupled together physically and follow along sequentially. Rail cars haul freight as often as people. However, on the innovation train, passenger cars are the key because ideas are the real freight: they are light in weight, but they have a powerful impact. On the innovation train, people ride in train cars that can be all over the world. The innovation train parallel processes information both simultaneously and around the clock. Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps, who wrote about virtual teams, noted that virtual structures require communication and information systems to keep people connected. Furthermore, these engines of information don’t just show up at the front of the train. Great ideas can show up anywhere in the organization, but they won’t get heard without an accommodating culture.

Values, Culture, and Organizational Environment

A good place to start when looking for examples of accommodating organizational environments is in organizations with successful organizational change efforts. Authors of books on change, like James O’Toole, John Kotter, and Christopher Head, recommend values-based leadership, an organized process with action plans, and a systemic approach to facilitating high performance. However, for innovation to truly flourish, more is needed. In addition to common values, shared purpose, and organized comprehensive approaches, authors on innovation such as Stanley Gryskiewicz, Michael Michalko, Gary Hamel, and James Utterback claim that organizations need a design and culture that is adaptable, encourages reasonable experimentation, is conducive to learning, and is willing to experience some failures along the way.

Gary Yukl, in his book on organizational leadership, described some of the characteristics of a learning organization: “values of innovation, experimentation, flexibility, and initiative are firmly embedded in the culture and reflected in the reward and appraisal system.” Cameron and Quinn, who authored Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture, described a culture of adhocracy to accommodate the need for responding to “the hyperturbulent, ever-accelerating conditions that increasingly typify the organizational world of the twenty-first century.” They described a culture that is adaptable, flexible, and creative “where uncertainty, ambiguity, and information overload are typical.”

Another description of what an innovative corporate culture might look like comes from Gary Hamel, who wrote Leading the Revolution: How to Thrive in Turbulent Times by Making Innovation a Way of Life. Hamel’s “design rules for innovation” can be summarized as follows:

  1. Unreasonable expectations
  2. Elastic business definition
  3. A cause, not a business
  4. New voices
  5. A market for innovation
  6. Low-risk experimentation
  7. Cellular division
  8. Connectivity

Hamel goes on to suggest activism and four other “equally important components:” innovation skills, innovation metrics, information technology, and management processes. Although he acknowledges that eureka moments can’t be pre-programmed, he does believe that “nonlinear innovation can be legitimized, fostered, celebrated, and rewarded.” It can also be thwarted by a variety of factors.

Thwarting Innovation

Michalko noted that a variety of mechanisms can thwart innovative behaviors:

  • Giving up after the first acceptable answer is found
  • Static inertia, preventing change until it may be too late
  • Seeing and thinking only what others do
  • Not questioning the status quo or asking curious questions
  • Working in silos

A guest post in Silicon Valley Watcher written by Sue Lebeck noted that “Laws and regulations, including tax policy, accounting rules and intellectual property rights are critical to support an innovation-friendly environment. Government policies have not kept up with the realities of innovating in a global economy; often they actively, if unintentionally, work against our ability to compete.” Clearly, a regulatory environment where policies have the potential to control intellectual property, incentives, and the complexity of business operations has the potential to thwart innovation. Even when these inhibiting factors aren’t dominant, individuals will still need to find ways to be creative and hasten the innovation process. Earlier in this article, people were identified as the primary engines of innovation, but some people are far more creative than others. So, what makes these creative people different than those who lack creativity?

Creative Individuals, Creative Thinking, and Positive Attitudes

Michalko pointed out that vital statistics, data, and intelligence quotients don’t explain creative genius: “creativity is not the same thing as intelligence.” In contrast to using limited past experiences, creative people look for new and different ways to resolve problems. As Michalko noted, creative geniuses generate “a rich diversity of alternatives and conjectures,” suggesting that how they think is far more important than what they are thinking about. Ultimately, thinking strategies and creative thinking techniques seem to hold the clues to generating creative solutions and novel ideas for resolving new problems or finding new opportunities. So, what establishes one’s potential for creativity and innovation?

Michalko claimed that “your business attitude determines your potential for innovation, creativity, even genius, and success in your field.” How people respond to change and stress is critical! He also noted that a positive self-image and creative behaviors are essential: people who see themselves as a subject instead of an object are more likely to be less inhibited and more creative. Since attitudes and behaviors are influenced by the choices people make, Michalko suggested that “creativity is decided by what we choose to do or what we refuse to do.” Therefore, people who wish to be more creative should attempt to control the limiting factors in their lives and begin to practice creative thinking techniques.

Train Stations for the Innovation Train

In this article, train stations for the innovation train represent the various activities that facilitate the innovation process. This begins by getting the right people on board at the beginning of the trip. Jim Collins emphasized the importance of this action in Good to Great when he noted that getting “the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus)” occurred before “figuring out where to drive it.” Then planning becomes an important part of the process.

In addition to finding people who have the skills and qualifications for organizational roles, it is important that organizations value diversity when hiring new people. As Gryskiewicz stated, “The single most important strategy for enhancing creativity in teams is deliberately building in cross-fertilization by selecting members with a broad range of skills and backgrounds.” Although a diverse group of people are likely to generate a broader set of ideas, it is important to focus when looking for new ideas and innovation.

Having goals and ranking the potential benefits of resolving various challenges both play important roles in identification of worthwhile business problems and selection of the right challenges. Michalko noted that people should determine what their goals are before looking for new ideas because identification of worthwhile business problems requires purpose. Only then can problems be converted into worthwhile opportunities. Because there are many ways to define, view, communicate, translate, work with, and resolve problems, it makes sense to approach problems from various angles and on multiple levels.

Michalko related that “by coining your challenge as broadly as possible, you put yourself on the top of the mountain from which you can view all possible approaches to the top.” He then suggested stretching the challenge by asking why. Squeezing the challenge by asking who, what, when, where, how, and why questions can also instigate enlightenment on sub-problems, encourage greater creativity, and lead to more innovative solutions. Once challenges are identified and prioritized, they should be accepted and centered, suggesting that a commitment to generating productive ideas for resolution is necessary.

Idea generation involves a variety of techniques: some of them for individuals and some of them for groups. Michalko pointed out that individuals can improve their creativity through “seeing what no one else is seeing” by adopting new perspectives, restructuring problems, taking new approaches, and looking for multiple solutions. He also recommended visualization techniques for displaying information in visual and spatial terms as well as verbal and numerical. Other strategies that he suggested facilitate “thinking what no one else is thinking.” These strategies include “thinking fluently” with large quantities of ideas, “making novel combinations” to construct new options and opportunities, “connecting the unconnected” to establish new relationships, “looking at the other side” to create new forms, “finding what you’re not looking for” through avoidance of preconceptions, and “awakening the collaborative spirit” to stimulate the collective intelligence of a group of people. This last strategy requires effective dialogue; clear, unassuming thinking; and honesty. One effective technique for creative group thinking is brainstorming. Regardless of which strategies or techniques are used, Michalko notes that practicing them is the best way to obtain positive results.

Once people are thinking creatively, it is important to get them to the next station: working creatively with others. Gryskiewicz pointed out that “teams by their very nature are breeding grounds for firecracker brainstorming.” He listed the following characteristics: “maintaining a diverse membership, including members from different functional divisions, incorporating complementary personality styles, rotating in new members, bringing in outside experts, promoting intensity, creating deadlines, focusing on the solution, directing intensity, encouraging frequent interactions, holding daily staff meetings, setting aside informal meeting spaces, using technology, creating virtual teams, using group decision-making software, maintaining team effectiveness, avoiding uniformity, avoiding tunnel vision, and preventing isolation.” These “strategies for developing positive turbulence in teams” can facilitate the process of creatively harnessing the power of change and developing an accommodating environment for “creativity, innovation, and renewal.”

Pressing on the Throttle

The final station on this run brings us full circle to where we began our journey; only now, the pace quickens. The concepts developed throughout this article ultimately need to be linked to vision, mission, purpose, and strategic objectives, while maintaining core values and an accommodating environment for innovation. With the dynamics of radical change in the 21st century, strategies and organizational designs can change very quickly, making all of these issues more complex—and more relevant.

Just last year, an article in the Bangkok Post noted that Information Architected Inc.’s global innovation survey “found that 17 out of 20 managers agree that innovation management is critical….Yet 51% of the companies participating in the survey have no formalized innovation management practice.” Half the participants noted a lack of systematic innovation processes and “a lack of innovation resources, leadership and adequate funding.” Though the majority of respondents acknowledged a need for actively managing innovation, only about a fourth of the organizations had taken specific actions over the previous two years.

I guess it is possible that your organization might be sheltered from the ambiguities and vagaries of change in the 21st century: only you know what challenges your organization faces. Nevertheless, my guess is that you’ll be much better off if you climb aboard the innovation train. Recessionary pressures are surely affecting CEO perspectives towards innovation, and the additional pressure to perform has surely increased interest in successful innovation. However, that additional pressure has also increased CEO interest in having existing projects produce. So, I would like to conclude this article with one final recommendation: don’t be caught sleeping in the caboose!

About the author:

Tom Hollinger is the recent founder of Leadership Learning Initiatives: a coaching and consulting practice focusing on communication, leadership, organizational development, and change management. As a life-long learner, Mr. Hollinger has completed a BBA and an MBA from the Pennsylvania State University, a Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership from Regent University, a Certificate in Biblical Studies from the Institute of Biblical Studies, and a Certificate in Human Resource Management from the Harrisburg Area Community College.  He is currently completing a Doctorate in Strategic Leadership at Regent University.

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