Diversity at the Heart of the Innovation Engine


6 min read
19 Oct

A qualified engineer, Riccardo Weber, talked to me about his new business, True Innovation. The company enables organisations to increase their ability to innovate and make strides in research and development. Since I think diversity and inclusion helps businesses to innovate and grow, I was looking forward to hearing how Riccardo approaches this in his business.

I started by asking him to tell me more about his background and career. I was particularly keen to hear what led him to set up a programme called Future Thinking in previous roles and why he has now set up True Innovation.

'As you can tell from the name, I'm not the typical British person, I'm half-Italian, half-German, so a diverse background already. I've done an engineering and an MBA degree, which might also seem quite diverse choices. I had a corporate career with engineering companies. In those, I always tried to simplify things by taking the big chunks apart and make them easier to understand. One of my favourite quotes is, "the man who moved the mountain started with taking away small stones." I love that. It's what I've tried to do in my whole career.

This is one of the reasons why I founded True Innovation. I realised that's what I enjoyed the most: developing new ideas and collaborating with other people from different departments, functions and backgrounds. I have a vision of leaders spending their working hours on truly innovating by including everybody in the organisation in the process - rather than doing KPIs, presentation slides, Excel spreadsheets all the time.

I've made it part of my vision to give the leaders the three Ts, which are the time, the tools and the thinking space to be able to truly innovate.'

With his three Ts, Riccardo is creating an atmosphere where everyone's included in that innovation process. The benefits of diversity for problem solving, decision-making and innovation have been well documented by the likes of McKinsey. Scott Page, an American academic, has also written a great book on it too. I asked Riccardo to tell me, based on his experience, what the relationship is between diversity, inclusion and innovation?

'I've seen a lot of leaders struggling to make time for innovation. It's not that they don't want to do it. One leader that I interviewed recently, got it spot on when he said, "The customer of today gets in the way of the customer tomorrow." There's a lot of short-termism in our organisations and businesses nowadays. The way the link between diversity innovation works for me is, when you think about innovation, and I may be simplifying it, there is a certain input into the innovation process, which is normally creating new ideas. It's a no-brainer to think that the more ideas you have, the better it is as an input.'

I agreed that the more people you have from diverse backgrounds, the more ideas you get for a given problem. Going a step further back, when you think about innovation and solving problems, with a more diverse group of people, you will identify more problems out there. If it's only you looking at the world, you might get a certain scope of things, but if you talk to two, three, or four others… the more diverse it gets. You get more issues raised and more opportunity to think about the solution.

'Yes so when you think about the throughput, doing innovation, including more people with diverse backgrounds, you have many more filters of looking at potential solutions and ideas. You can be much stricter with selecting the right solution or the right two solutions. If you have all the same filters it takes you into a funnel.

For example, in my previous company, we created a quarterly innovation panel where people who weren't engineers looked at engineering prototypes or solutions or proposals together. We had people from Finance, Quality, HR… They sat together looking at the same problem and the solution proposal from very different angles, and that was very efficient.

Once you have created and worked on the ideas, once you've had all the diverse inputs, it's a math game. If you think about it, there's an increased likelihood that the output is scalable to many more clients than if you didn't have diverse input. That diversity feeds through the whole innovation process and makes a lot of sense.

Years ago there was a North American car manufacturer that developed this beautiful new car. They worked hard on the technology and making a difference there. But their marketing team wasn't very diverse, they must have all been US Americans, nobody speaking Spanish. They named the car model, in a very certain way, and then tried to sell it in South America, where everybody speaks Spanish and Portuguese. The word they chose for that car was actually a swear word. All they needed is somebody who speaks Spanish, who could have told them, "Sorry, but you can't sell that." They didn't sell a single car.’

The Innovation Engine

The story about car naming is a great example of a costly mistake which perfectly illustrates the potential benefits of diversity in innovation. I asked Riccardo how the True Innovation model he uses with his clients works.

'I'll try to describe it as best I can. As I said before, I'm trying to break things down and simplify them. Innovation itself is such a buzzword but it may mean different things to people. The True Innovation model explains what innovation is and what affects innovation. There are two parts to it. One part is what I call the innovation engine, which consists of creating ideas and then converting ideas. So you cannot have only one part. If you have great ideas, but you don't convert them, you'll never have innovation. If you're good at converting ideas, but you never have ideas, you're not creating innovation.

The formula is ideas multiplied by conversion equals innovation. If one of the two parts is zero, you don't get innovation. So the idea generation and conversion is this engine that rotates very quickly, ideally, because that generates ideas, converts and generates more ideas. This is innovation. But this engine isn't suspended in a vacuum, in every organisation, there is a surrounding to it, a context to it, and that consists for me of five parts, and those five-parts influence how well this engine spins.

There's the leadership of an organisation. How engaged and how supportive of innovation is leadership? Are they just talking the talk or are they walking the walk and supporting the whole organisation in doing innovation? Next is a feature that I find is undervalued the most - communication. How does the business communicate? How do people within the business communicate with each other? Is it always up or is it also across, or are you talking only in your silo? Is the communication from the business only top-down or also bottom-up?

Networking, we all talk about individual networking. I think a strong internal network within an organisation enables people to get information and help and make decisions much quicker. The network helps to define innovation and create new ideas. To implement all of that, you need a good change management system. If you have all those ideas and you create innovation but you cannot implement it within your organisation, that slows things down and can demotivate strongly.

Finally, there's the organisational culture and how that influences doing innovation. There's a lot of hidden items within culture, almost like this iceberg model. You can't see most of the culture, but it influences everything we do every single day. So all of that together, those five surrounding attributes, influence how quickly our innovation motor, idea generation, idea conversion, can spin or cannot spin.'

I love Riccardo's model because his thinking incorporates those five critical attributes that allow the motor to spin. When I've talked to people in the past about innovation or I've worked in big companies where we got involved in innovation workshops and creativity workshops, it's all about how many post-it notes you can stick up on the wall. It's not been about the kind of the atmosphere or the environment that you create to allow innovation to happen, where the ideas get converted.

Surfacing Culture

In my book, "Inclusive Growth" I wrote a chapter on culture, so it's a particular interest for me when it comes to diversity and inclusion. I asked Riccardo if we could do a deep dive into culture because it's so important. I asked him how he defines culture and how he sees organisational culture affect innovation?

'The culture bit is the tricky one. How do you define culture? When you think of culture, the first thing that pops, at least into my mind is that we're talking about nations or peoples. What I often hear is that there's a distinct German culture, "Oh, that's the German in you coming out, Riccardo."

People tell me that because I am very focused and then I go straight to the point. Sometimes people might see me as being a little bit rude, but I'm direct. So culture can be about the behaviour of a group of people.'

Riccardo and I also discussed the three-tiered Schein model, which I refer to in my book.

‘The first level is those basic assumptions that people make, so you can't even necessarily talk about them, The next step up is the values that are a little bit more tangible than the assumptions and they might materialise in artefacts within an organisation. But a lot of culture is not visible, as if under the surface of the water, like the iceberg because it's about behaviour and feelings of people and it's tricky to define that. You can understand it better when you're immersed in it. A new starter to an organisation will struggle in the beginning to see that cultural bit but they learn as they progress within the company. Stuff like when somebody's talking about the director in the corner office and the corner office is the biggest in the whole building, that's an artefact, that means something.

Or like something I realised in one of my previous companies, I opted out of the car scheme and instead of having a big BMW, I came with my Prius, which is a hybrid car. I love hybrids, I'm saving a lot of money and the environment, but as a director of the business coming in with a hybrid, with a Prius, I got some looks on that, and that is also a manifestation of the culture if you think about it. Who cares what car I drive? But they seem to have cared, which was interesting to see. But how does that affect innovation?

Unfortunately, there isn't a one-size-fits-all culture for innovation, you always have to see the context of the organisation, how it works. If I had to generalise, I would say that an open culture, especially when it comes down to generating ideas, is more efficient. You also need a culture that is driven to convert those ideas into actual innovation. So if the culture is only open-minded and everybody is welcome to come in, "Let's have a huddle and talk about stuff", that's good at coming up with ideas, but you still have to drive that home and do something with it. The culture has to be well-balanced to do both.'

Inclusion and Innovation

I like what Riccardo says about how being more inclusive culturally supports innovation. I hear people talk about things like fast failure and failing forwards as a culture. Before I set up my diversity and inclusion consultancy, I worked within user experience and design in technology. We did a lot about innovation. The creative director I worked for was great at fostering the right environment. He would say things like, "There's no such thing as failure. Great things come out of failures." We would work in a very agile way, we would work rapidly, we would put prototypes together because only by working in that fashion could we learn. It was more important to learn what didn't work, rather than play it safe, be cautious, to try and find the one thing that did work. I asked Riccardo, 'What are some of the successes that you're seeing from organisations that are embracing innovation and creating those innovative cultures?'

'The Future Thinking programme I created brought leaders together to develop them as leaders and make their network stronger. The outputs were often more motivated people, higher retention rate for key talent and new ideas that were not even on the radar of the business before. We saw the time needed for product development reducing, because you have more people that flag up potential difficulties early on in the process when it's not super-expensive when you can change it much quicker, like with the American car that was named after a Spanish swear word. So all these benefits and many more like the perception of your business to potential employees and clients of being an innovative business. That doesn't hurt at all, rather the contrary.'

I rounded off our conversation by asking Riccardo my trademark question. 'What does inclusive growth mean to you, particularly when it relates to innovation?'

'Being me, I've taken the term apart again, inclusive and growth. For me, growth can mean personally, in my development. For an organisation, it means something else. I wouldn't exclude one or the other. I'd include both of those aspects in the meaning of growth.

With inclusive, if you think about the word it is, it's letting somebody partake, and that means it's an action you have to take, it's not something that happens by itself. So you have to invite somebody in. Putting it together inclusive growth together is letting people participate in your journey and your organisation's journey. It's not because somebody is in a different function, that they cannot partake in your function's growth and development or in your business growth, because everybody works together on the growth of the business. I want to put a word of caution in there, though. Inclusivity helps a lot at generating ideas, as I said before. We have to find a way of also then converting that into outputs; only having inputs isn't enough. How does inclusion drive the outputs as well? And that's what I mentioned earlier with having those filters and getting the bad ideas out of the system earlier on and flagging up difficulties that might come down the line with customers, so this is the benefit again, how inclusion can increase that inclusive growth.'

Riccardo's company has created the True Innovation scorecard. I asked him how it works and how readers can get hold of it?

‘I created the scorecard because I was thinking, how do I add value to somebody who wants to talk to me about innovation. What I've done since I've started the business is putting an hour, two hours a week aside for thinking, fixed in my calendar. That's me sitting down with a cup of tea or a coffee and thinking. That's how the scorecard came about. I've taken the model that I described earlier with the two parts in the middle that make the engine and then the five surrounding aspects influencing the context. The scorecard helps you assess how your organisation performs against that model.

For 10 minutes of your time across 18 questions, the immediate output will get a score for each one of those categories. You’ll get insights that say you're good at generating ideas, but not your conversion. The scorecard enables Riccardo to pick up on those topics and tailor a programme that helps you be more innovative, according to the individual needs of the business.'

To complete your True Innovation scorecard and report visit https://www.true-innovation.co.uk/copy-of-where-you-are/