Amid rapid digital transformation and the global pandemic, organizations are being forced to overhaul their business models and adapt to a new market reality where customers demand fresh, superior user experiences (UX) and seamless interaction at every touchpoint. Concurrently, technology is disrupting the ways we live and work.

Though the innovation conversation is usually dominated by the latest emergent digital technologies – e.g. robotic process automation (RPA), artificial intelligence (AI), optical character recognition (OCR) or data analytics – it’s important for leaders to note that these are merely the tools that enable the vision for enhanced customer experiences and more efficient business processes. At its core, future proofing your organization relies much more on people than it will on any device or program.  

While the blueprint for innovation varies based on an organization’s specific challenges and variable customer demands, there are a few common attributes that should power tomorrow’s growth strategies. Putting human capital at the very heart of this is critical, namely placing the right people in the right positions and empowering them to drive innovation. I’ve found the following values to be imperative in cultivating tomorrow’s talent, culture and processes, today.

Empower creators

Very often, leaders are solely focused on whatever vision they have. This makes sense, as this vision is usually the end result the business is looking to achieve. This may translate to increased market share, more revenue and happy shareholders. Visionaries are often given all the credit for an organization’s accomplishments but creativity is the vehicle that gets us there.

However, when it comes to fostering creativity, there is a troubling disconnect between what organizations need and how workers feel. According to a recent PwC survey, 77% of CEOs struggle to find the creativity they need to power their workforces. But at the same time, Adobe’s State of Create survey revealed that the same percentage (77%) of employees feel there is increasing pressure to be productive at work rather than creative.

Creativity is key to innovation. It opens up new doors in solving problems, achieving goals and inspiring teams to try new and different processes. Therefore, in order to innovate, leaders must focus on attracting and retaining creators. Formally embedding creativity into company culture and policy offers direct benefits for companies. For example, Google requires its employees to dedicate 20% of their schedule to Google-related passion projects as part of its renowned 20 Percent Project. Introduced in 2004, this initiative has spurred the invention of Gmail, Google Talk and AdSense. That’s an impressive ROI testimonial for the power of creativity and passion. 

Drive problem-solving

In an Adobe-commissioned global Creative Problem-Solving Study, 97% of educators reported that creative problem-solving is important for students to learn in school. Meanwhile, 75% agreed that professions requiring problem-solving skills are less likely to be impacted by automation. If there’s anything that’s not changing in the digital age, it’s this.

Whether facing economic shutdowns amid a global pandemic or accommodating new customer expectations on corporate sustainability, the business sphere is in a state of rapid, constant flux. People and companies are always going to face new problems and, as business leaders, our job is to identify and solve these problems. At the end of the day, our customers don’t inherently care about our teams’ process engineering, marketing strategies or sales tactics. They care about whether our products and services can solve problems, ease their pain points and help them better compete in the marketplace.

Invest in your workforce by focusing on lifelong learning

Innovative companies must also embrace continuous training and professional development. A recent IBM report projects that within the next three years, more than 120 million workers in the United States will need to undergo upskilling or reskilling. Meanwhile, in just five years’ time, the average length of training needed to brush up on new skills has increased from three days to 36 days. This is due to how quickly digital transformation is causing skill sets to become obsolete.

Similar to embracing and empowering creativity, companies need to focus on nurturing a growth mindset workforce that is committed to lifelong learning, acquiring new skills and navigating technology that doesn’t even yet exist. The concept of lifelong learning originated in academia and its benefits are now being largely promoted in professional settings, fast becoming a corporate priority.

At the heart of lifelong learning is the belief that new capabilities and brainpower can be nurtured through time, commitment and applied experiences. People who believe they can become more intellectually valuable are motivated to invest more of their time, toil and energy into personal improvement endeavors. Through a growth mindset, lifelong learners are compelled to reach higher and achieve more for themselves and the companies they work for.

Embrace collaborative, two-way mentoring

Mentoring is often thought of as a means of helping junior professionals make the transition from schooling to the workplace or to move up to the next wrung on the career ladder. Traditionally, the younger professional has benefited from mentoring but the approach to mentoring is evolving to become more innovative – offering benefits to both parties. This is sometimes called reverse-mentoring or two-way mentoring.

Not only can two-way mentoring help established professionals enhance their capacity as leaders and trainers, it enables them to future-proof their networks by connecting them with up-and-coming professional. It also exposes them to new skillsets, mindsets and ethos. As the younger generation obtains greater decision-making power in the workplace, this exposure is particularly helpful for gauging new perspectives in business operations. Not surprisingly, research from the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) found that two-way mentoring can help develop new digital skills, innovation and positive changes in company culture.

Don’t forget to humanize

The top digital disruptors have generated unprecedented influence and shareholder value by introducing fresh, innovative business models that were at one time unthinkable or deemed impossible.

In the digital age, it might seem that soft skills and compassion are becoming less important. But the opposite is true, especially when it comes to establishing brand loyalty and trust.

While a survey from Oliver Wyman found that digital brands like Facebook, YouTube, Etsy, Uber, and Airbnb rank higher than long-established brands for functional benefits like convenience and customization, the data also found that these brands have loyalty rankings of 30% or lower. Compare this to 40% for Disney, 50% for American Express and 65% for USAA, and the picture doesn’t look so bright for the sustainability of digital companies.

Without humanization efforts, even today’s most innovative companies could potentially become fleeting ships that are easily replaced. This should come as no surprise. After all, humans are the only resource with the ability to gain an empathetic view of what a business’s (and, more importantly, its customers’) needs are.

Organizations have always been whipped into shape by operational principles that drive productivity and efficiency. Currently, business leaders are leaning on digitization and automation to create a competitive advantage. But I believe the next frontier in operational principles will be centered around humanization, with successful companies being those that can aptly tune into what people want and reimagine new ways of living and working that align with our values.