How to Drive Innovation in the Workplace – Interview with Scott Bales

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Approx. 6 min. read
Last updated: November 16, 2017

It is challenging for a business to survive without investing in innovation in today’s globally competitive environment. Launching innovation initiatives is crucial for remaining competitive, improving product development, providing better customer service, and for retaining top talent.

What are the dos and don’ts of launching innovation initiatives in the workplace? What are the best practices for building a culture of innovation? Scott Bales, innovation advisor, speaker and best-selling author shares his tips for driving innovation in an effective way in the workplace.

Scott, you run the leading innovation firm Innovation Labs Asia based in Singapore. Can you tell us a bit more about your background and experiences, your story?

20 years ago I started my career in banking. I’ve done a lot of work on insights, particularly with the use of technology; things like internet banking, mobile banking, and the likes. I spent about 8 years in the banking sector and it got to a point where I was craving to do more, to spend more time creating things. At that time, the bank that I worked for had deployed me to do an interesting project in Cambodia. They gave us a huge amount of money and asked us to pursue a new market where we had no resources in. In 12 months, Wing Money was born. It was a hybrid of a corporate-venture-slash-startup, which changed my perspective of the world forever. We used new methods, new strategies, and new frameworks in building a viable business, and it worked. These frameworks have been the foundation of everything that I have been doing in the past 10 years.

Since then, I have been involved in over 30 startups and founded half a dozen of them. I’ve worked on every continent and in multiple industries, the likes of banking, healthcare, telecommunications, media etc.

It was only a couple of years ago when I realized that I really liked working on a diverse set of projects. I thought that the best way to do that was by helping others with their innovation journey, because that way I can have a portfolio of clients and a huge amount of diversity. Innovation Labs Asia has been quite lucky. We’ve been working with Tier 1 brands over the years and it has been really fantastic to be running transformational programs from the inside.

Scott Bales talks about innovation

In Innovation Wars Uncover the Competitive Innovation, you provide advice for driving innovation in organizations. If you had to pick 3 top tips for driving innovation success in the workplace, which ones would they be?

So, the top 3 tips comes back to my 4Cs model. Context: it’s all about setting yourself up structurally for a transformational journey. The journey to become innovative has a lot of bumps and setbacks. You have to realize you are going to have tough and trying times and Context is all about where you are today and what you aspire to be in 5 years time. Particularly from the customer’s perspective, what value will you create in 5 years time? Then, really use this to drive prioritization in the next 1-2 years.

The next tip is around Culture: Before you start anything, take a step back. Don’t just build a technology because it is the latest buzzword, or jump into the latest startup because it is the trend. First focus on building a quorum of employees, one that speaks the same language, works on the same framework and measures success in the same way. Have a culture of innovation that enables things such as curiosity, experimentation, asking why things exist, and that foundation becomes a natural soil where fantastic ideas can grow. A lot of companies jump into execution without establishing culture first, and they get very varied results. I say Culture is a must.

The third is Capability: Once the culture is in place, you can use these new frameworks and tools to execute ideas. At Innovation Labs Asia, we very much champion ideas like persona-based ideation, empathizing with the market and working back into the needs of your customers. We use things like the lean startup and the corporate version of that; lean enterprise, with objective ways of testing hypothesis on the market. We have Value metric models that allow us to have an objective measure on the value of an idea, when it comes to seeing what portfolio or ideas do you want in the pipeline.

What are the dos and don’ts for building a culture of innovation?

Like any other cultural transformation, innovation has its own potholes and advantages. The first thing I recommend for the don’ts is: don’t force people to do it.

What you want to do is identify the early adopters, those who passionately want to solve (customer) problems, who want to be involved in innovative projects and give them the first chance to begin the journey.

You want to work with people who actively want to do the work. As you start with this small base, celebrate their successes and reinforce their innovative behavior. This will resonate with the rest of the organization and more people will follow.

Related: 4 Ways to Use Internal Communication to Kickstart Innovation in Your Company

Why do you think that companies should involve their employees in their innovation process? What are the key benefits for the companies and for the employees?

One of the important things in including the employees is to not throw out your historical knowledge as you transform.

The key to doing that is by working on your current body of knowledge and employee base and just transform those skills and perspectives out into the world.

By bringing your employees along, particularly those who have done innovation workshops or gone through that journey, you ensure and maintain the strength of your industry knowledge but also transform with new ways of seeing the market.

Thinking you need to hire someone to transform the whole organization is not the right way to do it. Employees need to understand what you want to do and what they need to do to be part of this journey.

What are best practices that companies can implement to motivate employees to be active in the innovation process?

In terms of staff motivation, one thing that I have successfully done for my clients is adding a degree of competition. If you have things like idea challenges, boot camps and so forth, work becomes a place where they can test their ideas, work on solving problems and discover new things they initially did not see. It’s almost like a Shark tank, Dragon’s den kind of mentality.

The startup scene is very disruptive in this scene, almost like being hungry for the idea to be recognized and heard. Startups provide great lessons for all of us, mainly because people don’t have regular salaries or work in a stable environment and as a result, their hunger is exponentially higher than your average employee’s. Creating small parts of this kind of mentality will highly benefit your company.

Employee motivation at the workplace

What are the advantages of providing a digital platform for employees and encourage them to share content related to the company and their expertise with their colleagues?

It doesn’t necessarily have to be digital. One important thing in the innovation process is something we call validation. A couple of years ago I worked on something called “The validation coefficient” that basically showed that the strength of an idea and successes in the market can be directly tied back to the amount of feedback the idea could get.

A lot of people are super secretive about the idea they thought of and as a result, they only get a small group of people to give feedback on their work. If you go to a place like San Francisco, there are thousands of startups and company founders who constantly tell their story for the purpose of getting more and more feedback. Every mechanism you can implement that encourages the sharing and feedback loop will boost value of ideas and thereby create a space where employees can learn and thrive.

About Scott: Scott Bales is a global leader in the cutting edge arena known as "The Digital Shift". Innovation advisor, speaker and best-selling author, he helps companies such as Google, eBay, Accenture, Vodafone and Amazon Web Services designing effective innovation strategies. He has co-founded Next Bank, he is a member of Lean Startup and a key advisor at Publishizer, FastaCash, Our Better World, The HUB Singapore and Apps 4 Good.

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