The path to innovation is often identified as one that relies heavily on technical skills. Motifs of scientists or software coders conjure an image of technically-astute individuals working magic in idealized settings. Innovation, it turns out, is a more nuanced journey and experience from this. The reality is that innovation does not happen in a technically idealized setting. Instead, it is human-centric and often involves tangential soft skills that are as important, if not more so, than technical skills. Understanding the relationship between soft and hard skills can help derive successful outcomes from an innovation agenda.
Organizations wishing to create a culture of innovation must focus their efforts on blending these two paradigms, something Balvinder Singh Powar, Board Member and Director of Booster Space Industries is well versed in. Having worked with some of the largest organizations in Europe to actualize this blend, Balvinder understands that to gain leadership through innovation, organizations must first start by instilling the right attitude for success within their teams. We recently caught up with Balvinder to discuss how organizations can achieve innovation success through soft skill optimization and what this approach means for their innovation agendas.
Diversity is currently a hot topic in the tech community and often comes with connotations of nationality, gender, and race. However, Balvinder believes diversity does include these things but also more granular forms of diversity. “Diversity is not just nationality, it’s also working style,” he says. As innovation is often a result of individuals working on a team together, Balvinder sees the various soft skills each person has as contributing to the diversity of the group. He points out that while diverse groups will outperform uniform groups, they can also underperform if poorly managed. From his experience training teams, he sees effective management as one that helps individuals on the team understand each other for better collaboration.
Diversity can also refer to the difference between older and younger generation workers in an organization. Balvinder offers an illustration of a 50-something CFO at a traditional bank, who, representing an older generation of more traditional workers, must work, at the same level, with a C-suite cybersecurity executive who may be in his/her thirties. Having to manage at the same level on the organogram, synergizing these two individuals can lead to incredible results. “We talk about many layers of diversity. If we can understand them and put them together in the right way, then magic happens, but the first thing we must be is aware,” says Balvinder. This awareness has to do with learning how to blend high-tech with high-touch.
Blending High-tech with High-touch
With the advent of AI and other high-tech technologies, interactions across both local and dispersed teams are increasingly becoming digitized, resulting in fewer face-to-face interactions among team members. “We are getting into a world that is high-tech and high-touch,” says Balvinder. Today teams are faced with increasingly high-tech interactions while at the same time, a rising need to maintain direct communications in order to accelerate collaboration and innovation. This dilemma is accentuated by the influx of millennials into the workforce, a demographic that lives in a very mixed, hybrid world. This influx may at times clash with an older generation in senior management that is used to more direct communication that does not depend on technology.
Balvinder believes this challenge can be overcome by organizations becoming more intentional about bringing teams together in physical spaces. He recommends that teams have face-to-face time together as this promotes better understanding, connections, and empathy among team members, important ingredients for an innovation culture to thrive. “If you want to create innovation, the quality of how you interact with others does become important,” he says. This is exemplified, he argues, in the fact that a five-minute face-to-face meeting can accomplish more than a back and forth of 20 emails, a fact that science supports by showing that non-verbal communication (body language) accounts for 80% of human-to-human communications.
While most organizations employ a technology-led innovation process, Balvinder sees human-led innovation as the path to lasting and disruptive innovation. He explains that human-led innovation is an approach that attempts to instill two competencies in teams. The first is business innovation, where team members are encouraged and taught how to develop the mind of an entrepreneur. The second competency has to do with behavioral fitness which touches on knowing yourself, how to lead others, emotional intelligence, things like influence and persuasion, how to deal with conflict. He stresses that these competencies can only be refined in a group environment where individual members receive multilateral feedback on their progress.
Another area Balvinder believes has the potential to stimulate human-led innovation is incentives. By creating incentives that reward behaviors that support innovation, organizations can create a snowball effect that helps advance their innovation agenda at a faster rate. To achieve this, organizations must help their teams understand that they are part of a bigger picture. For instance, by helping employees understand why the organization must innovate (threats from new tech, new competitors, startups), it would be easier to foster a culture of innovation than if only top management understood the big picture. For instance, a traditional bank would need to make its employees aware of threats from digital-first banks like Revolut and N26 to provide context to employees on why they need to embrace an innovation culture.
Building an Experiential Innovation Culture
Massive companies like Apple and Amazon have built profitable businesses on triggering emotions through experiences. Balvinder sees this as a pointer to how organizations should approach innovation. “Not everything is application; it’s also about the experience,” he says. By creating memorable experiences, both for employees and customers, organizations can help trigger an emotional response, a key component of the human decision-making process. By doing so, organizations can create innovation cultures that do not hinge on cleverly written memos but instead emanate from the hearts of employees, a crucial factor in the race to becoming successful in a digital-first human-centric marketplace.