Building An Innovation Mindset With Jennifer Kenny

by | Mar 9, 2023 | Podcasts

SWGR Jennifer Kenny | Innovation Mindset

 

Innovation is the key to success in today’s fast-paced society. How can we cultivate an innovation mindset to achieve our goals in this rapidly changing world? In this episode, author and business mentor Jennifer Kenny explores the power of our innovative ideas and what it takes to apply them efficiently. She shares her story and expertise in finding rocks on the road to success and the various depths of innovation and leadership. She discusses how the innovation process can help identify problems and opportunities, as well as generate unique and effective solutions. From embracing a growth mindset to seeking new experiences, Jenny offers expert tips on implementing key changes with an innovative approach. Full of valuable insights on unlocking your creativity and problem-solving potential, this episode is not to be missed.

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Building An Innovation Mindset With Jennifer Kenny

Before I get to my very interesting guest, I’d like to invite you to see where your skills are strong by taking our free four-minute assessment at SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. That’s where you can see where your presentation skills are strong and where perhaps a little bit of support could get you the results you need and the recognition that you deserve. My guest is my wonderful friend, Jennifer Kenny, Jen, whom I have been amazed by and informed by for several years that I’ve known her. She’s published a book called The Innovation Mindset, all about how people think and how to move forward. She has some very interesting insights to share.

Jennifer Kenny is a master of innovation practices. With years of experience mentoring industry leaders towards high performance, Jennifer has spearheaded transformational systems and design programs for a diverse portfolio of technical clients such as the Toyota Research Institute, Cisco Systems, IBM, Wells Fargo, Intel, and Capital One.

With a background in science and engineering, Jen was formerly Chief Information Officer at the Stanford Research Institute. She was born in Ireland and now lives in the Bay Area and travels internationally as a speaker, writer, workshop leader, and mentor on the topics of human innovation, the business value of gender balance, and regenerative leadership.

Jennifer is a graduate of University College Dublin, where she completed a Bachelor of Science in Geology, and the Royal School of Mines at the Imperial College London, where she graduated with a Master of Science in Geotechnical in Engineering. Now, she uses all that information to help us find all the rocks in our road and the various depths of how we can innovate and lead. It was a fascinating conversation. You’ll enjoy it. Onto the interview with Jennifer Kenny.

Jen Kenny, I am so happy to have you on the show. Finally, I got you.

Thank you. I’m delighted to be here and see you.

Before we get into all the stuff that you have to talk about, let me ask you, who would be your dream interview? You could interview someone who’s no longer with us. Who would it be? What would you ask them? Who should be listening?

It would be Nelson Mandela. The reason why I would like to talk to him is that if our future is to be as joyful, vibrant, and innovative as we have the capacity to make it, but seem to be bungling here and there. The qualities that he demonstrated specifically are trust, courage, forgiveness, persistence, and patience. All of those qualities to me are core qualities of a good leader. I have been interested particularly in forgiveness and being able to move on and be in the present with people, which is hugely important for innovation.

I’ve been particularly interested in those since I was a child because when I was eleven, I remember hearing Mairead Corrigan MaGuire on the TV. She was the one who won the Nobel Peace Prize related to the peace work in Northern Ireland. She said, “Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves.” For somebody who had been in prison for that long, to be able to walk out the door, and forgive half of the inhabitants of the country, to me, is remarkable. It would be Nelson Mandela. Everybody should be listening. We all need to learn patience, forgiveness, trust, compassion, and all of those things.

Why does it matter? What’s your definition of innovation?

It matters because it’s how we’re going to get ourselves out of the holes we’ve dug ourselves into. We’re aware that we’re living on a tiny little ball of dust that’s having problems with this time, never mind all the other issues that we’re trying to deal with in terms of equality, food distribution, education, and all those things. Innovation is going to bring us out of that. It’s how we help ourselves be able to think differently about issues that we repeatedly and persistently see.

SWGR Jennifer Kenny | Innovation Mindset

Innovation Mindset: Innovation pushes us to get out of the holes we’ve dug ourselves into. It allows us to think differently about issues we repeatedly and persistently see.

 

The big difference and why I set out to write this book is I wanted to be able to democratize innovation for everybody because we are all by nature innovators. Even if you don’t have the title, you’re still an innovator because you have the capacity to see the world differently than anyone else, build sophisticated interpretations, educate yourself, learn, and work with other people to understand things differently. The ability to be able to do that as a practice is hugely important. Lots of people will conflate innovation with ideation or invention.

Conflate means to put together innovation and ideation. For our international readers and me, can you say that in simpler words?

They will mix up or confuse them. They will fold them into each other, which is what conflate means. They will treat them almost as if they’re the same. Invention is making a thing. Your invention may or may not be successful. Ideation is coming up with an idea. Your idea may or may not impact anyone else’s life other than your own, even if it does impact your own. Innovation is how we build ourselves as practitioners of bringing new practices to other human beings.

I do think of innovation as creating the next new thing. In your mind, what is this about? You said that this is learnable, which I’m excited about because I never thought I was innovative enough. How can we learn how to be innovative?

I wouldn’t say that innovation is creating the next new thing. That’s only part of what innovation is because the next new thing takes sometimes twenty years for communities to adopt new ideas. The next new thing isn’t the next new thing if it’s years later. The opportunity here is for people to be able to understand how to be able to think of their innovations as practices that they’re going to bring forward to a community. How do we change how we do certain things?

For example, take our iPhone. It has changed how we think about photography, research, communication, texting, messaging, scheduling, and organizing. It has changed all of our practices significantly. The way that we think about how we influence other people’s lives, hopefully for the good, is through changing their practices. You can turn that around on yourself and go, “I need to build practices for myself so that I can build myself as an innovator.” Part of what we cover in The Innovation Mindset is looking at some of those practices and helping people understand how they can build those practices as something that they would engage in on a daily basis.

SWGR Jennifer Kenny | Innovation Mindset

The Innovation Mindset: A Proven Method To Fuel Performance And Results By Jennifer Kenny

The benefit of that would be obvious, but what is the benefit?

The benefit of that is that we don’t waste all of the potentials that we have in the world for things to be better. We have wasted an enormous amount of global talent, global innovation capacity, and global identification of new possibilities of better ways of doing things and better products and services we can offer because we have designated innovators and other people. What I’m interested in is how I serve the designated innovators because I love working with them, but also how I help democratize innovation and have it be available as a practice to everybody.

You said something about wasting talent. One of the things that also interests me in the work that you do is talking about why gender-balanced teams are so important. If we’ve been going this far with 50% of our capacity because we’re only defining the way we think one way, how could we get 100% capacity?

My focus is very much on innovation and how we build our innovation capacity inside companies and in the world. One of the interesting statistics that are generally available coming out of the research that I’ve done is understanding that gender-balanced teams are more innovative. They come up with more discontinuous innovation ideas. Things that are greater leaps forward. They tend to get them to market and successfully embedded in human practices faster. They tend to have fewer failure rates because they’re already throwing out ideas or concepts that they don’t think are going to work. Gender-balanced teams, in general, with the data out there are more innovative.

My question was, what are those teams doing that is different from any other team? How much of it has to do with the fact that women lead differently? We’re at the stage of accepting that is a fact at this point that women lead differently for whatever reason, whether it’s biological, social programming, or whatever it is. My work took me towards understanding how we begin to identify that, put names on that, help people cultivate that, and help people get rewarded and recognized for that inside companies. Once we start doing that, we now open up that other half of our human capacity to be innovative, productive, and run more profitable companies to impact the seven major areas that we know gender-balanced has a significant impact on.

Can you give us an example of people you’ve worked with who made a difference in how performed or functioned?

It’s well-known and mostly through the wire socially that women tend to network cross-functionally across organizations. Men will network up and down the hierarchy. Again, it’s a vast generalization. I’m not interested in making generalizations, but it allows us to be able to understand differences. By understanding those differences, we can move beyond them.

SWGR Jennifer Kenny | Innovation Mindset

Innovation Mindset: Generalizations may not be ideal to make, but they allow us to understand differences and move beyond them.

 

It’s not all men or all women, but it’s a general way of thinking.

Absolutely not. It gives us a way of being able to look at things and invite people. It’s biology. It’s going to be a bell curve and a full spectrum. If we understand the ends of the spectrum, then we can engage with it more effectively. I have seen that if you have women who are more predisposed to a cross-functional conversation, collaboration, exploration, getting to know people, or any of that, they will invariably bring in a broader base of people into any innovation conversation. We also know that interdisciplinary innovation is the final frontier. It’s the place where we are potentially going to have the most groundbreaking innovations.

Define interdisciplinary innovation for us, please. You’re such a scholar and so smart. I want to make sure that everybody, including me, understands all your words.

We all come in with scientific disciplines, and most of the work that I do is around the sciences, which lends itself to product development and all those other things, but you may be an engineer, material scientist, battery scientist, AI expert, or machine-learning expert. People come in with experience in particular areas of different scientific disciplines. Because of that, they tend to gather together in those disciplines because they speak the same language, but it’s when they start speaking across different disciplines that the potential for innovation expands.

Give us an example. For instance, being able to look up a recipe on your phone instead of looking it up in a recipe book. I’m someone who believes in books, but I’ve gotten to the point that if I have some Turkey, fennel, and a couple of other things in my fridge, I’m going to put that into Google, see what comes up, and take a screenshot. That’s what I’m going to cook from. That’s interdisciplinary photography, cooking, etc. Would that count?

It’s an interesting one. It is, but I would look at it from what I’m familiar with which was the first hybrid car. Everybody knows the Prius was super successful, but Toyota took the notion of battery technology and the internal combustion engine and created a car that was able to run off both forms of energy. That’s further extrapolated into exclusively battery cars, Teslas, and things like that.

The interdisciplinary innovation that happened in areas you take people who have experience in battery technology and internal combustion engines, and you go, “Build me one engine. How does this work?” That has been successful, but for those people to get together in a room, and for someone to think that that was possible for them to figure out how to work with each other, and create one thing between them is pretty amazing. If you think about that, there are probably hundreds of thousands of those breakthroughs that we could have as we get more and more proficient in the interdisciplinary innovation space.

I’ve also heard you talking about the difference between power with versus power over. I thought, “That’s a juicy one.” What is that? How does it fit in?

If we work exclusively from power over, which would be our hierarchical organizational structures, where the person at the top knows everything and the people at the bottom know exponentially less, we’re saying innovation can only happen at the top levels. We don’t believe that anyone at the bottom level is capable of innovation. We’re reducing our innovation capacity right there.

If we don't believe that anyone at the bottom is capable of innovation, we are reducing our innovation capacity. Share on X

What’s super interesting is there’s a wonderful woman who wrote management science work in the 1920s. Her name is Mary Parker Follet. She’s the one who references most particularly this notion of power with and power over. She was looking at it from a productivity standpoint, but for me, what she’s pointing to is that you need to be able to create a dynamic environment where we have a certain level of hierarchical power from an organizational efficiency standpoint. We also have a certain level of power with which we can create that balance where people have a lot more autonomy to be able to innovate in the area in which they are working and knowledgeable. That balance and dynamic is something that if we could move more power with, we could also unleash more innovation capacity.

I love that. How do we do that?

The thing that we work through as part of the programs that I run and work I delivered for clients is the power of making offers. This work was first done in Oxford in the 1940s and 1960s. It was then brought into the modern day by Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores who wrote a book called Understanding Computers and Cognition. The idea is that human beings have the capacity to be able to speak offers to each other.

SWGR Jennifer Kenny | Innovation Mindset

Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design by Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores

When they do that, they open up a space between them for learning, co-invention, design, engagement, and all of those things. In the absence of doing that, that never happens. One of the things that people can do immediately or right after reading this is they can go, “Who do I want to make an offer to? Who do I want to engage with around making an offer?” You made me an offer that said, “I love what you’re doing. I’d love to have you on my show.” I was like, “That’s a fabulous offer. Thank you very much. I want more people to derive value, hopefully, from what I’m doing.”

The idea of making offers is a catalyst for a level of co-invention that allows us to be able to be more innovative. Most people don’t do that because they make them, get shut down, nobody listens, clumsy at making them, bad at making them, somebody doesn’t pay attention, they don’t fit the agenda, are not on the schedule, and are not part of the strategy. We haven’t built the capacity inside organizations as a practice to be able to listen to that. That’s one of the most basic and simple ways to get started.

I’m going to go back and read that because that sounds like a great idea. How do we apply it in our organization? It makes me think about the suggestion box on the factory floor.

The suggestion box on the factory floor might have had wonderful intentions in the beginning, but it became a way to not listen to people. When you put your suggestion in there, we read them, review them, and think about them. We never talked to you. The difference, particularly in a power with structure, is people get to own their own offers, go and deliver on their own offers, and come bring those offers to fruition. In the process of doing that, they grow and expand significantly.

Everybody I’ve worked with has gotten promoted and I can say this statistically. Once you start listening to what matters to other people and making offers, all of a sudden, you are now more valuable within the organization, even though the organization never thought you had to do that. It did through some of the work we’re doing, but it’s not something that people automatically understand, learn, or even have the support to do. You’re changing your organization to be able to support that level of autonomy and you’re showing people how to be able to step into that for themselves.

I certainly get the point of learning how to make the right offer. I made offers in a not-so-clever way. I had doors slammed in my face. This is why I teach this. I’ve made all those mistakes. There’s somebody here who is reading and says, “This is cool. I’d love to be able to know how to do this, but I’m in a power-over organization or hierarchical organization that doesn’t care.” People get used to being in charge and tell people, “I’m the oldest child. I do that too so I’ve had to learn how to share things.” If you are one of the people who think this is a neat idea, but you’re not in an organization that honors that, they’re quite happy where they are. What can you do?

It seems to me that whereas power usually means power-over, the power of some person or group over some other person or group, it is possible to develop the conception of power - with a jointly developed power, a co-active, not a coercive power. - Mary… Share on X

First of all, you can recognize they’re not happy where they are. If they’re running their organization exclusively as a hierarchical organization, they’re missing opportunities like market opportunities and revenue opportunities, failing, and losing customers. There are a bunch of things going on that they’re not happy about. The status quo might be okay and might be getting by, but if they’re ambitious people anywhere in there who want things to be better, then they’re the people that you want to talk to.

I had a client from a previous client moved to a new company. She got in there, turned around, and went, “I’m not working like this. People need to learn how to think for yourselves and bring The Innovation Mindset to life inside my team.” She got in touch with me and we put together a very particular proposal for her to bring to her boss. She did the internal selling herself because she was like, “I’m not stepping up to this huge request or task unless I get to help my team understand how to think differently.”

If you can find someone who’s ambitious, either for themselves or for their organization who’s not happy with the status quo, even though they can tolerate it maybe more than you can, and you work to go and say, “Here’s what I would like to do with my immediate team,” because I don’t recommend rolling out any of these things. I strongly recommend that they emerge through practice in the organization and that you carefully seed instances of this work around the organ and finally come together and produce that big shift you’re looking for.

For our international readers, seeding means dropping hints or telling little stories like dropping seeds in the ground. It is a marketing term for those who haven’t come across this before.

I would also consider starting small projects that will blow into bigger things. It is the idea of starting with something small and it grows into something bigger. We sometimes forget to play the long game and leave our patients at the door. Sometimes these things take 9, 12, 18, or 24 months. You’d rather get started than suffer and be where you’re still at 24 months from now.

SWGR Jennifer Kenny | Innovation Mindset

Innovation Mindset: Start small projects that will blow into bigger things. Sometimes, we forget to play the long game and leave people at the door.

 

This is part of the practice of innovation across disciplines, silos, and departments. Another question is, how do you get started with this cross-functional working and ideas in companies where there are departments that are terrified of sharing? They’re terrified that anyone who comes into work is going to be stealing from them. People who cling to their silos. We’ve all seen those.

I was doing a session once and someone who had joined said to me, “I’m going to the headquarters. What do you think I should do?” I said “You should identify 4 or 5 people whom you would like to build trust with. You would understand why you want to build trust with them and identify offers that you can make to them that they may find valuable that will help you build trust with them because they go hand in hand.”

It’s creating allies or enrolling allies onto your team.

Yes. I would even take it further, which is enrolling people who would be your internal customers for projects that you might decide to launch later.

I would like that.

If I was to offer this person something valuable, a small project, something that my team could offer them, or a report they might be able to give that would be valuable in terms of what our organization could do for theirs, would they find that valuable? Would they accept it? Would they help me fine-tune it to make sure it was as valuable as it could be for their team?

It’s identifying places where you can begin to build small bridges and small relationships. You can begin to identify people who are willing to say, “If you brought me that report, I would love that. That would be valuable. Give me a draft of it. Let me review it. Let me see what could be valuable in that.” There are lots of small steps that people can make. Since we all have innovation capacity, if someone tries to put that in a box, it’s incredibly frustrating and demoralizing for everyone. if you step outside of that, you will get support for it because everyone else wants to do it too. You just have courage. It does take courage.

Talk a little bit more about the courage to innovate or the courage it takes.

It takes a lot of courage to go talk to someone in the next department and go, “I’ve heard you complain about the work that we give to you as part of what we do. Can you tell me more about why you don’t like it? Can you tell me more about what it’s not doing for you? Can you tell me more about what would be valuable for you?” To have those conversations and hear things you don’t want to hear takes courage to talk to people about uncomfortable topics that you’d all rather pretend didn’t exist or the elephant in the room.

Those are the first steps. “I understand you’re not satisfied with what my department delivers to you every Friday in a report format. Can you tell me why?” You sit there and listen. Don’t defend yourself. That also takes courage. It’s how you teach yourself to be able to rise above the noise and be able to do something that is valuable for another human being. Every one of us has that built-in or programmed into ourselves. We don’t necessarily have the practice to be able to do it on a recurring basis that makes us feel good about it.

Let’s talk about giving yourself permission to listen to your ambitions.

There’s a difference between bragging and recognizing your own ambition. It’s always better to have someone else blow your horn for you. Let’s have that happen.

There is a difference between bragging and recognizing your ambition. It's always better to have someone else blow the horn for you. Share on X

This is what allies, sponsors, and mentors are for.

It’s what you’re doing for me, so thank you. There’s a beautiful saying which is alternately attributed to Einstein, the Talmud, or heaven knows where it came from, but it says, “Desire is the engine of the universe.” I love the idea that we are all going around desiring things to be better, have more recognition for what we bring, serve more people, make other people’s lives better, bring our ideas out into the world, have them be valued by other people, and contribute to other people’s lives.

There are 1,000 different ways that we want to innovate. If we don’t listen to those desires and ambitions, we’re missing out both for ourselves, our peers, and the people who are living on the planet with us at the same time as to the benefit that we could bring. We’ve given it almost this bad rep that it is ambition and that ambition means climbing the corporate ladder and beating other people to the top. No, I believe our ambition to express ourselves in the world in a way that adds value to other humans.

Significance is one of Maslow’s basic human needs. I’ve thought that it’s okay to be ambitious and make a difference. It’s okay to do that.

Not just okay, but it’s necessary.

If you have no desire to make a difference, then you rust. You get smaller and fall into a rut. As the saying goes, “A rut is a coffin with the ends kicked out.” Let’s remember that one. Jen Kenny, I am so happy I finally got you on the show. I’ve been asking you for a few years. I’m bringing you back when the next book comes out, but I don’t want to wait that long. I do want to get you here for now. Buy the book. I haven’t finished it, but what I read was good. I stayed up way too late reading the book. I’ll have to bring you back to talk about some more things, Jen. Thank you so much for being a guest.

Thank you very much, Elizabeth.

If you enjoyed this, please tell your friends, subscribe to us, and follow us on YouTube. That would be good, and especially leave us a good review on Apple Podcasts. Even if you’re an Android user, Apple Podcasts is the one that matters and that’s how people find us. We can have more people know brilliant guests like Jen Kenny. Jen, thanks for having for being on the show. I’ll see you at the next one.

 

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About Jennifer Kenny

SWGR Jennifer Kenny | Innovation MindsetJennifer Kenny is a master of innovation practices. With 25 years of experience mentoring industry leaders towards high performance, Kenny has spearheaded transformational systems and design programs for a diverse portfolio of technical clients such as The Toyota Research Institute, Cisco, IBM, Wells Fargo, Intel, and Capital One.

With a background in science and engineering, Kenny was formerly CIO at Stanford Research Institute. Born in Ireland, she now resides in the Bay Area and travels internationally as a speaker, writer, workshop leader, and mentor on the topics of Human Innovation, the business value of Gender Balance, and Regenerative Leadership.

Jennifer is a graduate of University College Dublin, where she completed a B.Sc in Geology, and the Royal School of Mines at Imperial College London, where she graduated with a M.Sc in Geotechnical Engineering.