Cultivating innovation skills in your workforce
Cultivating innovation skills in your workforce

Cultivating innovation skills in your workforce

In the age of automation, a workforce of creative thinkers is more crucial than ever. Here’s why.

The need to balance human and digital workforces resonates in the C-suite. According to KPMG’s U.S. CEO Outlook 2016, nearly nine in 10 CEOs are concerned about automating business processes. And yet, they also realize that harnessing automation for truly innovative solutions requires enormous human creativity.

If the ultimate goal is to allow digital and human workforces to complement each other, organizations must motivate employees to strive to make innovation a core competency. In our experience, the following are four effective steps business leaders can take to help employees build innovation skills:

Champion diversity of thought. Research reveals that diverse teams are more likely to conceive creative ideas than teams whose members have similar backgrounds, skills or outlooks. Equally important are external perspectives. KPMG’s ecosystem encompasses insight from business partners, industry luminaries, think tanks, universities and, of course, clients.

Shift the mindset. Although thinking innovatively comes naturally to some, others need to take a more systematic approach so that creativity can emerge. At KPMG, we utilize a variety of techniques to help innovation flourish:

  • Teams brainstorm the impact of disruptive issues in highly collaborative, alternative workspaces.
  • When teams comprise divergent personality styles, we encourage participants to monitor their own unconscious biases and remain open to novel perspectives.
  • We maintain an intense focus on the customer, including garnering input through direct contact and observation. Often more valuable than quantitative research, this approach uncovers what customers actually need versus what they say they need.
  • Our professionals are assigned challenging projects that align with their skills and interests. This concept is supported by research cited in Harvard Business Review, which concluded that, if aligned with the right challenge, 67 percent of individuals will display above-average creativity and innovation.

Invest your own time. Senior leaders cannot tackle innovation alone. According to KPMG’s U.S. CEO Outlook 2016, 85 percent of chief executives don’t believe they have enough time to strategize about responding to disruption with innovation. A commitment to experimentation must start at the top and infuse the entire organization. As leaders ensure that employees have the autonomy to think creatively, they should also make innovation an integral part of their own job descriptions. Their hands-on role is the key that connects innovative thinking to marketable solutions. If leaders aim for double-digit growth enabled by innovation efforts, they must devote adequate time to leading the charge.

Incentivize and reward, meaningfully. All employees should establish an innovation objective, incorporate it into their day-to-day responsibilities and commit to developing relevant skills. And as part of a fail-safe environment, employees should be comfortable speaking authentically, sharing their unique experiences and stepping outside of their comfort zones to experiment freely.

Employees should be rewarded in meaningful ways for tangible innovation outcomes—promotions, variable compensation, awards, team recognition or assignments to choice projects. At KPMG, we conduct “innovation challenges” among teams, in which they conceive innovative solutions to client issues that are then judged by a leadership panel. Winning teams are provided support to develop their ideas and bring them to market. This creates a feedback loop by which morale and motivation are sustained.

An essential balance

As critical as it is to invest in digital automation, it is equally important to foster innovation skills in the workforce. While nearly a quarter of CEOs surveyed by KPMG indicate that investing in cognitive computing is among their top three objectives in the next three years, 96 percent expect to increase their headcount in the same time frame. As we pursue innovation, we must all seek the balance between human and technological assets. And we must continue to demonstrate an unwavering commitment to the one capability that can never be automated—creativity.

KPMG’s leadership series on innovation includes our perspectives on fostering a culture of innovation, making innovation an enterprise-wide strategy, detecting early signals of disruption, balancing an innovation portfolio and cultivating innovation skills in the organization. Learn more at