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24th Annual AmCham Human Resources Conference – 

The Innovation Imperative: Igniting Advantage through People and Culture

Breakout Sessions: Culture and People are Key

By Nan-Hie In

“In Silicon Valley there is a common euphemism: it takes six pivots before you actually land on the thing that works,” says Tony O’Driscoll, Regional Managing Director at Duke Corporate Education, in a breakout session on culture and conditions that stimulate and sustain innovation.

Start-ups pivot on their business model, customers, capabilities, partnerships and technology, then by the sixth pivot the market magically adopts the concept, he claims. But before such success, how can one hold on during the first five pivots when things are looking bleak? He shares his five-pronged framework to increase the likelihood of driving an innovative culture at your company.

Path to innovation

One should start with the company’s purpose. According to O’Driscoll, there has to be an emotional resonance with the aspiration of an organization that everyone – employees, customers, partners and shareholders – can connect with. “People don’t buy what you do but why you do it,” he says.

O’Driscoll cites Apple as an example. The popularity of the tech giant’s gadgets are not solely due to the elegance and simplicity of their design. Its products resonate deeply with customers, or what he calls a company “working from the inside out.”

“You can see Steve Jobs saying, ‘Everything we do is about challenging the status quo and putting a dent in the universe – we think different,’” he says, adding that the firm’s products reflect such ethos. “At the back of their minds, people like the fact that they are doing things differently.”

O’Driscoll encourages organizations to think about how to develop a clear and compelling direction around their collective aspiration to do something different that will have an impact over multiple horizons.

Tony O’Driscoll
Tony O’Driscoll

A case in point is Corning, a glass manufacturer which took the core competencies of their product and charted progressive paths over time, from producing glass cookware in the 1980s to fiber optic cables in the 1990s, and then Gorilla Glass in the 2000s, a protective glass for touch screen devices such as iPhones. The vision is to form a ‘world of glass,’ where everyday life is incorporated with its cutting-edge glass technologies.

“If you’re going to try to keep talent, they want to know there is a crystal clear vision of where we [as a company] are going,” he says, referring to the need of keeping employees informed of the corporate objectives.


Networks inside and outside the organization are great places to generate transformative ideas. Technology giant IBM holds the Innovation Jam event to mine ideas from its internal network through 72-hour sessions. Ten teams with the best ideas each receive an award of US$10 million to develop those ideas, reveals O’Driscoll.

Alternatively, companies can source ideas through the external network as Procter & Gamble did for Pringles chips. They came up with the idea to print images and text on potato chips – a process for which they needed external help to produce and eventually adopted the form provided by a French chemist who came up with printed ink on Pringles.

“The company uncovered this insight and created a whole new category that created much money for them but they did not do it themselves,” O’Driscoll says.

“Unless and until the organization viscerally and visibly comprehends in an emotive way whom they are serving, you can’t have breakthrough on things,” says O’Driscoll. He cites in an example of Ritz Carlton Hotel’s morning line-up routine in which every staff member has to share a story of how they blew away a customer.

“That means you have to go out and wow customers, otherwise you won’t have a story to tell during this routine and risk looking stupid in front of your friends,” he says, highlighting the implementation of routines and practices to meet the needs of your stakeholders and to drive decisions for something different that will have an impact.

As culture shapes innovative efforts, organizations are advised to watch out for a culture of “anti-innovation” including learned helplessness, which breeds an atmosphere of fear.

O’Driscoll suggests correcting this dynamic by cultivating a setting of shared helpfulness. “Tim Brown, [an innovation expert and] author of Change by Design, said the more complex the problem, the more help you need. We need to figure out a culture where helpfulness is more imbedded,” he says.

One idea is to reward helpful behavior. Another is to promote a strong sense of the company’s mission that everyone can connect with – which in turn cultivates a collective helpfulness because “purpose neutralizes fears.” Companies should create a comfortable environment where staff can take risks and experiment on promising ideas.

Talent recruitment

Shaurav Sen, an advisor leader for Asia at CEB (a best practices insight firm), discussed in another breakout session of the HR Conference what corporate guardians of talent can directly and indirectly do to bring about innovative outcomes within their affiliated organizations.

Sen shares his three-lever framework on innovation from an HR perspective. People shape innovation in firms, including HR practices such as recruitment, management and more. Organizational structure is another.

Shaurav Sen
Shaurav Sen

“Highly segmented or multiple-level organizations tend to slow down design-making and reduce vitality,” he explains. He suggests a redesign roles and responsibilities to stimulate innovation.

Another lever is the process and technology of firms – policies and tools that impact idea generation and collaboration. Citing CEB’s research, Sen says companies should leverage progressive HR strategies such as those of high-performing companies to overcome barriers for innovation.

He also suggests companies to adopt recruitment strategies to better understand the mindset of potential hires by moving beyond hiring practices that only focus on a candidate’s cognitive and technical skills.

According to Carol S Dweck, an academic at Stanford University and author of Mindset, there are two kinds of people in the world: those with a fixed mindset who believe in innate intelligence and those with a growth mindset who believe capabilities can be developed and grown. They respond to challenges differently.

Fixed mindset people avoid or give up easily on challenges due to their determinist view of fixed capabilities, whereas growth mindset people persist on challenges as they believe they can overcome those challenges through continued learning. The growth mindset are also inspired by the process as a stepping stone to mastery, says Sen.

“We need more people who feel inspired on a regular basis if you are serious about innovation,” he says.


Sen tells HR professionals to examine their current recruitment approach and assessment to see if their practices find clues about the mindset of applicants. One way is to assess potential hires’ learning style and observe how they respond to unfamiliar challenges.

Another way to help spur innovation is to rethink the company’s reward strategy to remove people’s fear of failure. Tata Group, a large conglomerate based in India, realized employees were hesitant to try new ideas due to a fear of embarrassment if they failed. In turn, it introduced a ‘Dare to Try’ award for those who attempted yet failed on promising projects but learnt valuable lessons in the process.

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“You have to recognize there is much to be learnt from failures, and until we put failure almost as the same podium as successes, we are not going to get into that mindset challenge of risk avoidance,” he explains.

The most effective leaders can pull together a team and initiate outcomes by empowering staff, Sen also believes. “Without making our employees feeling empowered, we are never going to be able to unleash their potential for innovation and out-of-the-box thinking.”

And one of HR’s functions is to make leaders aware of their empowering and disempowering behaviors. An example of the latter is a hierarchical leader that dominates decision-making instead of delegating some of those responsibilities to staff.

GSK’s approach to help leaders become cognizant to their behavioral impact on innovation is an example. The pharmaceutical company’s Leader Self-Awareness Diagnostic queries leaders’ management style, confidence building tactics and more – a process that prompts leaders to reflect on their habits that affect staff.

“GSK’s diagnostic brings to the surface things that leaders do through simple self-assessment questions and then having a dialogue around it to show leaders how they can empower their teams,” Sen points out.

HR can play a role in proactively guiding innovation productivity. Often there is a gap between the company’s mission and staff’s understanding of such vision and their implications. “You need innovation to have some kind of direction; if you leave employees to innovate on their own, they will go and do their own things,” Sen says.

He suggests businesses to find ways to link employees’ efforts to the company’s purpose. And some firms have captured their mission statement on office art to help employees connect their efforts to the organization’s purpose.