4 June 2018

Building a Culture of Innovation Throughout the Ranks

by :

By John Hawley & Joel Garrison

Upon reflection, innovation is the essential element in human evolution. As our specialized learning capacity grew, our ability to share and communicate complex ideas grew. Archaeologists suggest that, prior to the advent of artificial socially complex systems, nature rewarded human innovation at all levels. If human beings are hard-wired for innovation, then why is it a challenge for many organizations to encourage it? The advent of artificial systems created social complexities (ie. gatekeeping, power imbalances) that limit critical thought. Despite our best efforts to suppress bottom-up creativity, it is still a powerful innate human trait. Humans will seek out others to collaborate with to test those innovations. Unfortunately, unless power structures are flattened, many innovative ideas will never be considered. This essay provides a short blue print for evaluating all potentially innovative ideas in an organization

Our use of design is a proven grassroots empowerment approach in industry, education, and government. It is the first step to shift to a culture of innovation. The method combines a series of organic workshops that introduce design thinking concepts and techniques to enable rapid learning and advance problem solving at the individual, team and organization level.  As a commonly used practical application, visible at many organizational levels, over 4,000 individuals, (educated in groups of ~25) have gone through our instruction.

We actively encourage participants to creatively solve problems and achieve enhanced performance through a focus on the individual first. The process stimulates and motivates participants, as well as leadership, with numerous mental tools instrumental to the effective application of an organization’s tacit knowledge. Instead of complicated lectures and slides, participants engage in a model experience to enable the growth and impact of various unconventional concepts and techniques. Individual contributions are then translated into achievable steps and goals during many team building activities.

This method leverages the tacit knowledge of the people in an organization by developing:

Team-wide creativity

Employee confidence

Accurate process improvement

Meaningful collaboration with teammates

It is important to break an organization’s known and unknown barriers that limit innovation. We label these roadblocks ‘stagvation’. A culture of stagnation prevents a culture of innovation. We end stagvation using a two-step process.  First, hands-on exercises that build teamwork, creativity, and personal growth in rapid succession which identify each individual’s mental strengths. Participants learn the tools of human-centered design, communication, and process improvement. A series of interactive exercises and team thinking challenges enhance meaningful collaboration and improve the camaraderie of the team.

Second, teams engage in organizational problem solving. We develop an audience-tailored curriculum of group engagements based on problems an individual organization is confronting. Group modules challenge participants to depart from the status quo, clearly understand the problem they are trying to solve, foster a questioning attitude and look at new solutions with an open mind. The process establishes trust with one another. More importantly, the process removes organizational barriers to innovation. Techniques empower individuals to take ownership and make a meaningful contribution. Their only limit is their own imagination.

Overall, the method promotes ideation and creativity as a process to achieve what others, including their previous self, view as impossible. These engagements emphasize the management of risk in order to learn and grow while embracing shortfalls as opportunities to overcome barriers and obstacles. Tailored exercises act as catalysts to inspire employees to become positive agents of change.  We can tailor design training to improve several areas in an organization including:

– Accurate recruitment

– Seamless onboarding process

– Effective mentorship

– Workplace recognition

– Developing meaningful internal & external relationships

– Retaining talent at work

– Customer loyalty

– Improved job satisfaction

– Efficient team collaboration

– Openness and transparency

– Respect for others

– Inspired personal growth

The process allows for the creation of a curriculum that is flexible.  Adaptability is crucial to the method’s success. No two engagements are the same. Adjusting the curriculum is a dynamic interactive practice.

Each organization’s unique problems are confronted. By the end of the engagement, causes for the problems and solutions for those causes are identified. The following are a few key aspects of our approach:

Permitted failure. Take the opportunity to be wrong and learn from your mistakes in a truly consequence-free atmosphere.

Become comfortable with the uncomfortable. Learn to embrace calculated risk, contribute to the team process, and push boundaries in order to improve on a personal and professional level.

Broaden interpersonal horizons. Empower your people and transform your workplace culture by encouraging valuable group input.

In closing, this approach breaks through traditional barriers of office politics to enable a team-wide shift to collective and collaborative thinking. As designers, we must share our best practices and learn from one another.


John Hawley is a design thinking facilitator.   He is an expert in team-building and process improvement. John educates thousands of individuals around the world using his successful design thinking methods to unleash hidden potential. Joel Garrison is a strategist who solves complex problems. John and Joel believe the key to organizational success are individuals free to contribute without limits in collaborative teams that solve complex problems. Together, John and Joel work to provide organizations with written solutions to their most wicked problems. For a demonstration of John and Joel’s work, please feel free to contact them at

Title image source: Nick Youngson, “Team”

You may also like

4 June 2018

On Organizational Leadership – Transitioning from the Military to Industry

Read More
4 June 2018

‘Emergence’ Explained in Everyday Speak… So Defense Forces Might Mean What They Say!

Read More
4 June 2018

To Design or Not to Design (Part Five): Doctrine and Design: How Analogies and Design Theory Resist the Military Ritual of Codification

Read More