Innovation is about people and a strong organisational culture

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In 2016, you published a book (together with Professors Matej Černe, Anders Dysvik, Arne Carlsen) entitled “Capitalising on creativity: Fostering the implementation of creative ideas at work”. What is the biggest challenge within the people-process-ideas triangle when building an environment where the potential of highly creative and possibly useful ideas establishes a competitive advantage for a company?

There is an abundance of ideas floating out there in business. The true challenge of innovation comes when we need to implement those ideas, to move from fascination about something new towards something that will solve actual problems of real people. A special challenge is when ideas are extremely novel, different from what we have been used to doing so far, and that is exactly what our book focuses on – how to put these highly creative, highly novel, yet different and still potentially useful ideas into practice.

What about the conditions from the leadership side, where to start?

That is part of the difficulty, it is a multi-level phenomenon that needs to be tackled on various levels. Even the level of society is important – some societies are more open to innovation than others. Then you need to understand the context within which you are operating and the organisational practices. In addition, the organisational culture – some organisations are used to dealing with innovation on a daily basis, others are not. Leaders, as the agents of change in an organisation, have a vital role to play: to connect good ideas, to link together people who are willing to persist and fight for good ideas to make them possible and to implement them.

Many organisations struggle by having different generations in the workplace. What is the key to managing multigenerational workforces in a world of age-diverse organisations?

I think that generational differences are overrated. If you look at the existing research, you find many more differences between different personalities and the psychology of the individual, rather than simply their age. Diversity clearly matters and this is from where ideas actually arise, and organisations must be able to create cultures that are diverse, inclusive and respectful of others’ opinions. This is where you benefit at the front-end of innovation: you get ideas, you get perspectives. In addition, you need to master the process of how you deal with sometimes even conflicting opinions. It is also important to take one step at a time and to also consider diversity across different ranks of the organisation. While dealing with radical innovation, it is crucial to have people from both the operational as well as strategic ranks working on these projects from the start, together with the users.

INSEAD recently published your case study on Outfit7 (together with Žiga Vavpotič and Spencer Harrison). What is its main message and why has the start-up succeeded?

Outfit7 is a globally interesting phenomenon because of the way they approached starting the company. It was quite counterintuitive and perhaps still is these days, namely, that you kick off a business without having a product. Instead, they had a team that already had experience with each other. They knew each other, they knew how they work together, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how they complement each other. They spent about half a year trying to figure out what it was they would be doing together. They tried a guide to Iceland, they tried a wealth-management app, all sorts of things relatively far from Talking Tom. They had a strong team and two founders: one who was really deep into HR and understanding how to build a strong culture and how to recruit the correct people, test them, and another who was a technological visionary who understood that the moment for such technology was right. Still, people before technology, which is what made them different and extremely successful.

You are involved in several international research collaborations and you have accumulated extensive practical experience through workshops, trainings and consulting assignments for clients in Scandinavia, Central and Eastern Europe, and China. Does innovation management vary globally and, if so, how?

Yes and no! There are some common traits of innovation management that I observe; for instance, as individuals we are all about purpose which drives our innovation and creativity, we like to do something meaningful. At the same time, the organisational context also matters. Some organisational settings are simply much more open to innovation and others have been in a stable environment for a long period. However, national cultures are boxes that are too big; judging from some recent meta-analytical evidence, only 20% of cultural variance is located at the national level, and even 80% within countries. In plain language, if you really want to understand people and innovation you must look much deeper than country boxes allow us to.

What has inspired you the most, where have you fostered innovation the most?

You find hubs of activity and innovation in the most unusual places. In Shanghai and Beijing, one is impressed by the scale and speed of how fast things are changing. We have excellent ideas in Slovenia; in Scandinavia, you encounter the most imaginative ways for solving real-life problems; in Africa, people can be innovative with very limited resources. It is part of the human system; we are very much driven to create and to develop something new. I would definitely not stop in Silicon Valley. If your mind is open enough, you will find really interesting stories all around the globe.

How do you recognise talent and is Slovenia doing enough to attract it? It is not only organisations that compete for talent today, but also countries…

Exactly. Despite the recent geopolitical turmoil, there is a strong awareness that capable and motivated people from around the world are the ones who drive business forward, lift economies and societies up to the next level, and are able to resolve many of the issues we are facing today. Smart policymakers and businesses are aware of this crucial resource and are doing everything in their power to shape attractive innovation policy mixes and attractive working conditions.
In terms of innovation policy mixes, everything from education, pension through to work–life balance matters. Here, a recent OECD study shows we have an excellent education system, with the exception of its internationalisation part. The sooner we accept that the English language is lingua franca that allows us to get our message across, the better. I firmly believe we will not lose our identity by opening up – in fact, the opposite will happen – it will reinforce our contribution to this global society by being a little more open and inclusive. At least this is the experience we have at the School of Business and Economics at University of Ljubljana (SEB LU) and the experience of many countries, including Norway where I spent 5 years of my life.

As the Vice Dean for Research at the SEB LU, what would you highlight from the Faculty’s portfolio? Where do you see the SEB LU’s strengths in the area of research?

We cover a broad range of disciplines within business and economics. An important topic is sustainable business and economics; we have made quite intensive contributions to the domain of innovation management. We also have a very strong and international group of scholars in logistics, dealing with supply chains and business process management; also top researchers in sustainable tourism. I would also say we have a lot to show in terms of competitiveness and international financial markets. There are exciting things happening in neuroscience and managerial accounting. And I hope all my colleagues reading this interview who I have excluded from the list will not hold it against me. There is a genuine research buzz in the air at the SEB LU. I’d like to say that our strength is that we are close to where it happens, close to the challenges, needs and opportunities of business, and that is the part we aim to further strengthen in the future.