Innovation is top-of-mind with Shawn Casemore. With over two decades of experience leading teams, Shawn uses innovative strategies to empower his employees to think creatively and work cohesively. We recently sat down to discuss the many definitions around innovation and why thinking innovatively sets an organization up for success.

TEC Canada: Tell us about innovation on a macro-level and differentiate between innovation on a micro-level (Creating innovation as a culture vs. employing tactics within each team).

Shawn Casemore: First off, Innovation in my mind is applied creativity.

Any CEO or business leader has to start by demonstrating innovation on a holistic level. Lots of leaders that I work with believe that to be innovative means to invest in technology or automation. Leaders need to steer clear of the ‘shiny object syndrome’ and realize innovation starts with your people. I was in an organization recently who had invested heavily in a system to centralize their documents, however by introducing multiple software solutions, they actually created more work for their employees who hadn’t yet understood when or how to utilize the technology after one year. This is one of the many cases of using technology for the sake of using technology.

As with the example above, although the leader of the organization had a goal to improve efficiency and productivity, employees who will actually be part of the solution weren’t brought in on the decision. So, on a macro-level, it’s about creating a culture for innovation by engaging your people in discussions, the investment and the go-forth plan for the organization. On a micro-level, front-line leaders need to encourage creativity by loosening up processes. I’m a fan of processes and procedures as they provide consistency, however processes that are too stringent or that are in abundance often kill creativity.

TC: Can you explain your structure on employee reviews (Proactive Feedback Discussion)? Why is this an effective method and was there a certain moment that inspired you to think differently?

SC: I’ve led teams of all sizes for over two decades, and what I’ve found crucial about employee reviews is to be proactive and treat the review as an ongoing dialogue. Early in my career, I would plant the seed for upcoming discussions with my employees’ to determine what’s working, what’s not working, where they want to be etc. Being proactive was vital to bringing my employees to the same page and outlining expectations. This helped me to progress the performance of my people quickly and proactively, as opposed to reactive and finding out what needs to be changed.

TC: Much of your focus seems to be on empowering people and being an effective leader, why aren’t leaders empowering their employees to be more innovative?

SC: The issue with many leaders is they’re too busy and as a result not delegating effectively. When leaders are too focused on driving forward, they can come off as impatient with their team by not having frequent, open and transparent dialogues with their people. To counteract this, I’ve focused much of my own time as a leader, as well as worked with dozens of clients to build self-managed teams, with the goal of having the next person in line running the organization better than I did. Creating this team means allowing people to think for themselves and at times, removing front-line management. Once you remind people that it’s okay to think on their own and that mistakes happen, you allow people to take action, and you can take a step back and re-deploy front line leaders elsewhere which actually yields higher levels of productivity both for the team, and most often the front line leader themselves.

TC: Where are leaders going wrong with innovation? Are they looking too outwards rather than motivating/making changes from within?

SC: Innovation too often gets confused with the idea of improving efficiency and it’s important to differentiate between the two. You can implement an innovative procedure which adds a few more steps to a process (and appears to diminish productivity or efficiency) however that actually improves the ways in which customers are serviced. For example, if you’re a financial organization, you may want to speed up processing customers’ concerns, therefore you may default to looking into the best software and look externally, when simply connecting and discussing the issues with employees dealing with customer concerns will yield far more ideas, that will resolve the issue and improve the speed and quality of customer service. If new software comes from this discussion, then you at least have buy-in from employees to actually learn and use the software. Don’t get me wrong, looking outward for new ideas is not the problem as observing how other organizations work can spark tremendous ideas, but leaders must not forget that it’s their people that will bring the idea to life. If you plan on touring another facility, bring your team along, this will help them buy-into new and creative ideas.

TC: What kind of team do you need to ensure innovation is top-of-mind in an organization? (Characteristics, specific roles, experience levels etc.)

SC: You hire/promote people based on their “fit” within the organization, more so than their skills. I can teach anyone almost anything, but I can’t teach people how to work well together. As an example, I was tasked with rebuilding the entire field-facing team in an organization and one of my first steps was assessing team chemistry. When I would bring people in for interviews, they would meet multiple members of the team and at times, I would have a few employees sit in during the interview. Part of the training experience involved cross-functional exposure to other departments and people; I would have an accounting person spend a day in the field and vice-versa. You make better decisions when you understand the entire organization. With cross-functional exposure, people have a more holistic view of the organization and how it works. Lastly, your team needs to be customer centric – everybody needs to understand the customer regardless of department. With all three combined, you can ensure innovation is a staple in your organization.

Shawn Casemore is the author of “Operational Empowerment” and “The Unstoppable Organization”, two books focused on the collaboration of teams to drive results. Bringing experience from the automotive, packaging, pharmaceuticals, electronics and power generation sectors, Shawn has been a leader focused on outpacing the competition by an organization’s strongest asset: their people. He currently speaks and consults with business leaders, particularly entrepreneurs of fast-growing organizations, to build winning teams while improving the customer experience.