This story is part of our 2023 Chief Innovation Officer Forecast series with Gizmodo, a report from the front lines of business.
Fostering a culture of innovation can be a challenge, especially in established organizations. Large companies often struggle with ingrained resistance to change, short-term thinking, siloed departments, risk aversion, or complacency. Driving a real culture shift requires overcoming these barriers through strong leadership, strategic focus, training, and effective communication. Employees need to be empowered to think creatively and challenge the status quo.
Even with these factors in place, the decision to innovate is ultimately driven by mindset and commitment at the individual level. But this, too, can be influenced by supportive managers who prioritize innovation.
Claus Jensen is chief innovation officer at Teladoc Health, a virtual healthcare company that has been recognized for its innovative telehealth solutions. He shared his philosophy and approach to embedding innovation across an organization. The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You’ve talked about the idea of making any job an innovation role, that it’s not just for chief innovation officers. Can you share how you came to this philosophy?
Jensen: I’ve been involved in innovation in one way or another for as long as I can remember, even though it wasn’t always under a formal headline of innovation. Throughout my career, I’ve always pushed boundaries, which can be done in different ways without being abrasive.
I think it will come down to solving the village doctor paradox, which is the human dilemma that says, “I want sophisticated modern healthcare, but I also want the village doctor experience.” Everyone thinks you can’t have both, because the sophistication and specialization that created academic medical centers also fragments healthcare. What if that’s not true? What if we challenge the notion that modern healthcare and personalized experience are mutually exclusive and come up with innovative solutions that provide both?
In my experience, successful innovation comes from embedding it within the organization’s culture and daily operations. It’s about cultivating a mindset that encourages people to think creatively and challenge the status quo in their own work. It’s not something that can be achieved by assigning a separate innovation team. Innovation needs to be integrated into the work that everyone does, every day. Otherwise, you risk creating silos that don’t communicate effectively with each other, which can hinder innovation and ultimately lead to failure.
We still see a lot of companies struggling with this. What changes did you make to ensure that everybody is looking for innovation and stays focused on creating value for the business as well?
The answer is simple but correct—it’s a mindset. You take the time to talk about the mindset. Walk the walk. But you need to call out when you walk the walk and why, how, and what it means for the organization and the individual. I’m leading eight sessions with eight different parts of my organization where we’re talking about innovation for a whole day. I run these sessions because they’re about values, mindset, and culture.
You can give people tools and resources, but the most important thing you must do is change their mindset. If your team’s mindset says, “I don’t have room for innovation,” that’s a problem. That tells you they think of innovation as something on the side. You’ll progress more quickly if you change the thought model to, “We’re all innovating every day in everything we do.” There are tangible practices to adopt, but it starts with a personal decision. Is this something I’m going to do, or isn’t it?
Once individuals have made that personal decision, what can organizations do to support their innovation efforts?
Organizations can encourage innovation by reinforcing that mindset shift. You can set up office hours to answer questions as a follow-up to a learning session. We’ve organized hackathons and patent-generating events. Additionally, you can try to get your team to call out when they’re slipping back into the status quo, and templatize some of the innovation processes in your work products to ensure that everyone is conscious of the intent.
There is a learning curve; people start out unconsciously incompetent, then they become consciously incompetent, eventually they become consciously competent, and work toward becoming unconsciously competent.
You’ve worked in both old and new companies. Does the age of the company affect the culture of innovation?
I don’t think it’s necessarily the age of the company that affects the culture of innovation. Instead, it’s the strengths of the existing culture and the mindset of the people within the organization. Whether it’s a young or an old company, if the people are convinced there is only one right way of doing things, it can stifle innovation. On the other hand, a culture that encourages innovation and new ideas can thrive, regardless of the age of the company.
We do not currently have a system for measuring innovation. While I would like to have one in place, I also think it’s important not to measure too quickly, as it can bury the innovative spark. Instead, I look for data points and observations that show changed behavior as an indicator of mindset and progress.
When you hire, do you think about a candidate’s potential to fit into an innovation culture? Some people might prefer a more orthodox structure.
That’s true and that’s fine. There’s room for everyone. It’s a personal choice. Some people may have more natural affinity for innovation than others, but these are all learnable skills for someone who makes that choice.
We have people all over the learning curve. It’s up to them to decide that this is something they’re going to do. By the end of the semester learning program, I try to get people to the “consciously incompetent” stage and give them some tools they can apply to move toward “consciously competent.” It will take you to the point of learning what making innovation part of your day job means and how you can think about it. Now it’s your turn to decide what you’re going to do or not.
Claudio Garcia is president of Outthinker Strategy Networks, a global network of strategy executives from large organizations. He teaches global management and international human resources management at New York University’s School of Professional Studies and shared this interview for publication on Quartz.