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Last week, Maura O’Neill, former President Obama’s first Chief Innovation Officer and Senior Counselor to the Administrator for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), was in town as a speaker at YPO EDGE 2018, YPO’s largest flagship event, which saw over 2,000 global chief executives examining leadership from many perspectives.
Currently a distinguished teaching fellow at University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business, O’Neill is passionate about sourcing and scaling breakthrough ideas, growing businesses, as well as teaching and mentoring others wanting to make a big difference. While with the USAID (from 2009 to 2013), O’Neill was responsible for inspiring and leading breakthrough innovations in foreign assistance and development worldwide.
On the sidelines of YPO EDGE, Human Resources spoke to O’Neill to seek her thoughts on how organisations can cultivate creativity and innovation in their employees.
Q Is creativity born or bred?
I think it is bred, not born. Just like leadership, I believe that anybody can be creative. In fact, Kenneth Robinson is the most watched TED Talk of all time. He said that if you ask kindergartners who is creative, everybody will raise their hands; if you ask adults, very few will raise their hands. So I think that one of the great tragedies is we all start out with endless potential and then we live in a society or we join organisations that sort of pound that creativity out of us. I think our challenge as HR professionals or as leaders is to create environments for people to do the best work they have ever done in their lives.
Q How do you think leaders, organisations, and HR can create this environment? What should that environment consist of?
What we know is that trust is at the basis of any of this – it is the first building block. There is some fascinating new brain research that has been done on what constitutes trust relationships.
The first thing that needs to be done if you want to induce more creativity in your organisation is to create trust. It changes everything in a good way.
The next building block is curiosity; you should create an organisation that is insatiably curious – what you want is for everybody to believe that they are continuous learners and to really foster that.
The next building block is for them to question the status quo. That’s a tough thing for organisations because they are efficient and excellent because they ask people to do things the same way over and over. It is a tough balance between being operationally excellent and questioning the status quo so we can get better at innovation as well.
Q How should organisations balance the two – being operationally excellent and questioning the status quo?
I think they need to do both. Either you become the disruptive innovator in your industry, or somebody else will come in to disrupt you.
You have to do them in parallel to one another. You can’t ask the person who is answering the phone or keeping the trains running on time to be the disruptive innovator.
You have to really source that innovation within the organisation on a parallel track. You have to budget and give them a team and the freedom to think outside the box.
That doesn’t mean that you don’t take advantage of the expertise of the person who has been keeping the trains running on time. You should take advantage of that by having them go on a sabbatical into that innovation group. The innovation can become too separate to connect it to the business unless you have the continuous recycling of that talent or that continuous infusion of the kind of expertise and creativity.
I think the biggest mistake organisations make is that they label people. What I know is that ordinary people are truly capable of extraordinary things and if, as a leader, you actually believe that, you will be flabbergasted at the amount of innovation and value that your team can produce.
Q As humans, we are all inclined to label the people we meet, so how can you avoid the mistake of labelling people?
I think that we are all hardwired to be narrow-minded and it helps because it makes us be fast and frugal in our decision making.
From the beginning of time, we all had to make a very fast decision of looking at you and deciding whether you are going to be my friend or foe. If you were going to be my foe, then I have to know that I was at risk.
But, just like how we don’t live in the caveman times anymore, some of these stuff that we are hardwired to do, we just have to let go. So we need to create environments where people can do the best work they have ever done.
I have learnt the hard way that not everybody wants to do so. Not everybody who can be creative chooses to be creative; not everybody who could work hard and deliver a value chooses to do that.
So as leaders and HR professionals, we have to make those distinctions – we have to give everybody the opportunity to rise to the occasion and do the best work they have ever done, but we have to have systems in place to make choices between, and give opportunities to those who do and those who do not.
Q What do you think are the key success factors for organisations as well as individuals to remain creative as well as innovative?
I think there are three factors that are absolutely essential for organisations to be creative.
First, they have to create an environment of trust and safety.
Second, they have to invest in continuous training and belief in improving the skill sets of their people; that has to be a two-way street, it isn’t solely the leader’s responsibility, it is also the individual’s responsibility; it has to be a partnership.
Third, they have to encourage diversity and difference of opinion; they have to encourage a wide variety of skill-sets and create open dialogue to have open conversations.
Organisations that can do all three are those that really thrive.
As the interview was done on International Women’s Day (8 March), we also asked O’Neill for her advice for women aspiring to reach top leadership positions.
Q You have been in top leadership positions such as the First Chief Innovation Officer of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). So in your capacity as a leader, what is one advice you have for aspiring women?
There are two things.
One, never stop believing in yourself. I thought my mother’s generation were the trailblazers, I didn’t realise I was leaving so much work for my daughter’s generation. I think we have to keep believing in ourselves because there’s still so much work to do; it’s still harder to be a woman in the workplace, and at home, than it should be.
Two, dream big. I think as women, we sometimes edit ourselves. We sometimes don’t dream as big as men do, and that’s a tragedy.
There was a great picture where this two-year-old girl was standing in front of a portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama and she was just in awe – it recently went viral all over the United States. Michelle Obama met with her and told her “keep dreaming big for yourself and maybe one day I’ll proudly look up at a portrait of you” – and that’s what I hope for every woman and girl I interact with.
Photo / Provided