Build a Greenhouse Where Innovation Can Flourish

I recently sat through a conference presentation that included many slides on building a culture of innovation. As I glanced around the room, I noticed another attendee with that “Yea, right” look. I chuckled to myself because at that moment I was thinking the same thing. Innovation is not about a product or initiative. Innovation is borne out of an environment that fosters creativity.

When I first moved to Saudi Arabia, the villa that I lived in had a huge front yard. Since outdoor gardening was my hobby, I knew I wanted to build the most amazing array of plants anyone had seen. Excitedly, I stopped by a garden shop and loaded up my car. I came home and spent an entire day digging, planting and getting it all together. Every day I came home and watered and waited.

As I worked every afternoon, I noticed a guy across the street watching me work. I figured he was admiring my yard. Within a week, however, every plant started to die. My solution was to buy more plants. A few weeks later, the new arrivals had also pretty much given up. The guy across the street was still watching.

After a few starts with no real growth, the man stopped over one afternoon.

The greenhouse is the key

They are dying, he told me, because the environment isn’t right. You did not try to understand the soil. In gardening you have to think of the greenhouse. You have to create the right environment so that plants can thrive. In the greenhouse, it is a controlled environment so that when you bring the plants home, you must mirror that as much as is possible for your environment.

“The soil is the key,” he explained, “You have to get that right.

So I hired him to carry out my dreams. He immediately had the soil tested, gave me a list of items to buy including ingredients to enhance the soil. In time,  I did have the yard I wanted, but I had to create the environment first.

So when I hear all this talk about innovation that everyone is seeking, that is, for the most part, a pipe dream. You have to create the greenhouse in the organization to pull it off. The first step in an innovation process is building the environment that makes it work, because these two are mutually inclusive.

Innovation is not a light switch

Innovation, as I said earlier, is not connected to a product or initiative. The product or the new initiative are byproducts of the right environment. Employees are not excited about market share or whatever financial metric you use as a yardstick for success. They are excited about the purpose of an organization. It is about generating excitement about ideas. Teams have to mobilize on delivering something new. This is not done in a dysfunctional environment. Companies that are innovative almost act like a cult. They are in a zone that has been created within an organization. That organizational greenhouse is the foundation of innovation ingenuity.

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However, every time I read an article or hear a speech, innovation is discussed as if in in a late night commercial; as if it happens out of a vacuum. These same strategists would be at a loss for words if they had to describe the culture within their own organization that was going to create all this innovation they are yearning for.

Brainstorming is a waste of time

As organizations struggle to become more innovative, the operative word in this process is the old standby brainstorming. As if sitting in a meeting and thinking through a process would suddenly make innovative ideas percolate. If we think back though our thought process one thing we will realize is that our greatest solutions come when we are doing something totally opposite which has no connection to our workday.

I write for numerous publications; my ideas come to me in the early morning, either on my way to the gym, inside the gym or on the way home. Those ideas percolate outside of work. If I sat around in a room brainstorming ideas the end of day would arrive and I’d have basically nothing.

This is why before you even consider the internal process of innovation, you need to create the right environment for getting it done.

Innovation is not owned by the C-suite or the R&D department. From customer service to HR to finance, this successful greenhouse has to be a constant across all departments. It is everyone’s job, 24/7. There is no innovation team, per se. it is everyone’s job to be innovative, but to grow and flourish they must be in an environment that enables that growth.

So my thought is: build the greenhouse first and they will come.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.