I spent a good portion of my youth imagining galactic travel, robots on other planets, and space habitats. (And yes, I watched every episode of Star Trek — a remarkable source of new inventions.) So, when Marty Waszak, Strategic Relations Officer at NASA Langley Research Center, a kindred spirit and fellow crusader of innovation, invited me to speak to a group of senior scientists and engineers about the creative process, I was over the moon!
While thrilled with the invitation, I wondered what a lecture from me could possibly contribute to innovation at NASA — the pioneering leader in research, development and design… and an organization filled with rocket scientists.
Then, it occurred to me that PwC and NASA might have a few challenges and opportunities in common. We are both heavily regulated organizations, obligated to deliver projects on budget and on time, staffed with highly technical people, and expected to continuously think creatively to provide clients with competitive advantage. This realization helped me focus on lessons I’ve learned as the Innovation Leader at PwC and what I could share with NASA.
Lesson #1: Innovation can come from anyone, anywhere
Innovation is the introduction of anything new or different. Anything new or different implies innovation can happen anywhere, not just in labs or R&D centers, and by anyone, not only scientists and researchers. At PwC, we have simplified our innovation mission into one question which is relevant to every member of our organization: “What can I do differently today to deliver more value to my client?”
Lesson # 2: People want to be engaged and empowered
At a time when user-generated content rules the web, everyone wants to be empowered to develop strategies previously limited to boardrooms in the executive suite. Employees want to be part of something meaningful and big, and they often surprise if given the opportunity. NASA and PwC, hire some of the brightest people. Let’s give them a virtual seat in the boardroom and empower them to cultivate their own vision and contribute to the success of the organization.
Lesson #3: Collaboration helps!
I doubt many would challenge my claim that collaboration helps evolve ideas into more valuable assets. How do you foster an environment where an idea is only the beginning… and collaboration from colleagues is an essential next step? Online tools that enable brainstorming can be an effective way to transparently showcase the process and benefits of collaboration. At the core however, is a cultural issue that needs fostering from all levels.
Lesson #4: Leadership must be part of the innovation eco-system
I don’t recall ever hearing a CEO say we don’t need innovation, but few truly understand the commitment involved in supporting a culture of creativity. Our social contract with our people at PwC states that if you submit an idea into our idea management site, iPlace, a member of the leadership team will read it, evaluate for possible implementation, and provide comments directly on the site. This direct engagement provides genuine support and the transparency creates a safe environment for innovative thinking.
Lesson #5: Recognize and reward innovation
Most organizations know how to recognize and reward accomplishments, but how do you recognize someone with an idea before it has been fully developed or implemented? If your organization has 3,000 ideas in its pipeline and resources only allow the implementation of 300, where do you the draw the line? Recognition of all innovators creates trust, builds confidence, and helps accelerate the innovation mindset. Recognition is not a zero sum game. There’s an endless supply. Be generous!
These simple lessons resonated with the audience. Hopefully I influenced them to think slightly differently about each person’s role in the innovation life-cycle. I personally walked away with much more. Not only did I have an incredible day flying the lunar simulator, (successfully landing the first attempt and crashing the second!), sitting in the cockpit of a simulated 757 aircraft, and visiting a space robot who can build a station on the moon, I also met some of the smartest people on the planet, and was inspired by their long-standing commitment to improving the lives of others.
What I really learned at NASA has little to do with space exploration and everything to do with everyday life. I was reminded that we all face similar issues — and innovation is really a people issue. Maybe not everyone dreams of space travel, but everyone should be allowed to dream and have the opportunity to make a difference.