Creating Inclusive Innovation Workplaces: Insights from the Playground

By Fernanda Arreola

In the pursuit of engaging employees in innovative endeavours, a pressing need emerges for firms to establish new, inclusive settings known as innovation playgrounds. Fernanda Arreola explores some of these strategies pivotal in crafting playgrounds that cultivate an environment that nurtures inclusivity, sparks innovation, and fosters elevated employee engagement.

In the mid-1980s, Frito Lays faced challenges, prompting then-CEO Roger Enrico to initiate a groundbreaking initiative. Encouraging his 300,000 employees to “act as an owner,” Enrico inadvertently opened the door for inclusive innovation. A janitor, Richard Montanez, seized this opportunity, presenting an idea that would cater to the underserved Latino community. This story, along with others like it, underscores the potential within organizations when they create an open playground for innovation.

The playground analogy aptly describes the environment needed for fostering innovation within companies. However, similar to school playgrounds, today’s innovation playgrounds in companies may not be as inclusive as needed. Research in diversity and sports indicates the complexity of encouraging underrepresented groups to participate in activities marked by gender, access, or perceived competence. Such factors lead to the creation of stereotypes, limiting willingness to participate in activities marked as “out of one’s reach.”

To address this issue and engage all employees in innovative practices, firms must create new inclusive settings, referred to as innovation playgrounds.

Three insights to create innovation playgrounds

Start with Space

The design of office space becomes the initial vector for encouraging inclusive innovation practices. Similar to sports, the layout of the “playground” should entice contribution, collaboration, and creativity while facilitating access to tools. Although architectural firms are increasingly fostering the design of innovative office spaces, ensuring the existence of such areas across the entire organization remains a challenge.

Additionally, studies have long attested to the direct relationship between personal interactions and innovation. Many companies, including Google, Samsung, and Facebook, are generating new measuring metrics to certify such encounters. Zappos, for example, introduced “collisionable hours,” ensuring sufficient people walk through different office spaces daily to encourage new interactions and spur innovation.

Propose New and Safe Games

Similar to reclaiming a playground, organizations can propose new activities to reinvest otherwise invested innovation spaces. Companies often overemphasize the need for product innovation, making other areas uncomfortable. Focusing solely on product innovation may lead to fear of judgment, hindering contributions from different departments.

Creating a psychologically safe atmosphere is crucial, where employees feel comfortable challenging ideas and taking initiative. This fosters a culture of creativity and innovation. To encourage more people to innovate, firms should open new ways for employees to deliver alternative types of innovation while promoting a culture that embraces diverse perspectives.

Train and Teach the Rules of the Game

Research shows that people avoid engaging in certain activities, such as sports or innovation, when they feel incompetent. Therefore, innovation training becomes crucial to help everyone understand what innovation means within the company. IBM’s use of artificial intelligence to accompany first-time museum visitors showcases how training can prepare individuals for new experiences.

Innovation training enables organizations to cultivate optimal conditions for fostering creativity, equipping employees with the skills to respond to industry disruptions positively. Moreover, research indicates that innovation training leads to greater employee engagement.

In conclusion, creating inclusive innovation playgrounds involves providing access to facilities and resources, fostering psychological safety, disseminating information, and implementing comprehensive training programs. These efforts contribute to a culture of innovation and increased employee engagement, propelling organizations toward sustained success.

About the Author

Fernanda Arreola

Fernanda Arreola is a Professor of Strategy, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship at ESSCA and a researcher focusing on service innovation, governance, and social entrepreneurship. Fernanda has held numerous managerial posts and possesses a range of international academic and professional experience.

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