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Nurturing A Culture Of Innovation

Design itself is change, and organizations fostering agents for change are primed to succeed. No one knows this better than the folks at NASA, particularly Jeff Davis, its former Director of Human Health and Performance and an internationally renowned leader in “open talent”.

During his lecture about NASA’s new innovation culture at the recent Future of Medical Miracles conference organized by the Mack Center for Technological Innovation, Davis said that open innovation made sense for them. “It allowed us to open up our problems to the crowd, if you will, and we got some novel ideas back. Since then we’ve been building [open innovation] into our basic problem-solving structure.”

Long before COVID-19 forced ongoing upheavals in the workplace, open innovation blurred the lines of organizational boundaries to gain revolutionary solutions to challenging problems. In NASA’s case, for each problem they run hundreds of challenges in partnership with a vetted list of innovation platform partners, such as InnoCentive. Their combined experience suggests that organizations develop a Center of Excellence (CoE) to guide, mitigate premature cessation, and ensure that the momentum continues and advances a culture of innovation.

Here’s how they do it. NASA develops a strategy to embrace collaborative innovation, for example, addressing the human risks of space flight. They use four phases to implement the strategy: Learn, Pilot, Scale and Sustain. They review the timeline needed for each phase, providing recommendations for a swifter progression through each phase.

The organization begins the Learn phase with new training on open innovation. An innovation plan is aligned with key elements of the business strategy and organizational goals. High-priority problems are identified, then a review takes place to consider how the problems can be solved through an open innovation challenge. A value proposition assesses funding resources to reward the challenge’s winning team (running several challenges on more than one platform is advised). The prep work refines and contributes to the Pilot phase, which works through the issues of point solution, creative content and data science.

Organizations also use internal ideation contests to improve processes or business ideas as a method of launching the internal platform and employee engagement. Existing associates have the potential to team with other specialists from around the world. Connecting with the organization’s legal, procurement and HR leaders, they can begin to recruit associates as champions. These internal champions are key to the success and ably communicate the results peer-to-peer. “People had to find their own way [in determining] how to construct the algorithm,” Davis said. “What we got back was a result from a man who had never worked with NASA, who wasn’t even a heliophysicist. He was actually a retired radio frequency engineer.”

Open sourcing successes illustrate the opportunity to find and share sometimes seemingly rare knowledge across a worldwide spectrum of people and experiences. The value proposition sets the reward to the team, which enables the organization to fix the cost without internal growth, allowing it to scale an important initiative. A shift in employee roles occurred during NASA’s Scale phase, changing engineer identities from “problem solvers” to “solution seekers”. Encouraging the innovation mindset, their strategic pursuit of initiatives reminds associates of the value of their contributions as part of the larger team and reveals the benefits with great transparency.

Cultivating the momentum of cultural change (the Sustain phase) relies on leadership, attitude and engagement: turning around questions and viewpoints, creating a positive environment for ideas to grow, and creating a community gathering place where these ideas can thrive. Building positive outcomes fueled NASA in expanding the number of open innovation platforms. More platforms allowed for a greater diversity of challenge types, with additional expansion of awareness and training workshops. As Jeff Davis said: “One important thing is having a novel approach that is rooted in strategy.”

The CoE applies the method, provides an infrastructure to shepherd the process and address the cultural issues that arise to support its breakthrough success. Thus, the organization nurtures a culture of innovation. How will you begin your own cultural innovation?

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