Innovation Must be a Bold, Proactive Commitment for Chicago

DJ Paoni

Chicago is known by many names – the Windy City, the Velvet City, Chi-Town – but what truly stands out about this metropolitan hub that I call home is the wave of innovation produced in its history. From the first successful open-heart surgery performed in 1893 and inventor Martin Cooper’s work that led to the birth of the cell phone, to the first plasma prototype display and the birth of the Linux source code, Chicago has long been at the forefront of ingenuity and technological advancement.

With a rich history of business innovation, it’s no surprise that our state was named a “Digital Winner” in SAP and Oxford Economics’ recent Leaders 2020 study. The study identified a set of capabilities and practices that define the most innovative organizations – and Illinois boasts an impressive 23 percent of respondents that qualify for this elite group compared to only 16 percent nationally. However, those who deal in innovation –who are changing the places we live and the industries in which we work – know that it isn’t a business of looking back and reveling in past glory; innovation is a non-stop process, and it’s up to Chicago businesses to solidify the city as a global innovation incubator for years to come. How can Chicago businesses maintain this momentum?

Empower Employees to Take Risks

Innovation starts with a culture that inspires a free flow of ideas and a certain amount of risk. The world’s most influential inventors didn’t come to be so by thinking inside the box or limiting themselves out of fear of a challenge. The results of the Leaders 2020 study showed that innovation leaders are those that inspire employees to become more engaged, feel empowered to share their ideas, and venture outside of their comfort zones. When I first started my career, I was determined to complete every assignment to near perfection. Unfortunately, (hindsight is 20/20!), this extreme emphasis on flawless execution made me shy away from taking risks early in my career – a lesson I have since learned from and leveraged to inspire my fellow colleagues here at SAP.

Senior leadership are effective agents for encouraging this culture, and it helps employees feel more connected to their organization. After all, employees who work at companies with better executive leadership tend to be those that are more satisfied and engaged – a strong correlation shown in the Leader 2020 study that can’t be ignored. That being said, a system is ultimately only as strong as its participants; the next step for Chicago businesses looking to become leaders in innovation is to promote a workforce composed of individuals from all walks of life and business – a marketplace of ideas, which brings me to my next point.

Encourage Diversity of Thought

Corporate diversity isn’t (and shouldn’t be considered) as a simple box to check; a culture marked by diversity is a competitive essential in today’s globalized economy. In fact, the study found that the most successful innovation leaders in Illinois were consistently the most diverse, especially at the executive level. Here in Chicago, we have the benefit of a city represents one of the most diverse global hubs, attracting top talent that drives impressive economic growth. Nonetheless, there is still work to be done. More voices, more perspectives, more experiences from the corner office to the cubicle translate directly to better decision-making and business value.

The data is clear: Leaders in innovation are those that inspire creativity and risk taking, help employees feel more engaged at work, and invest in developing a workforce that reflects our diverse world. Chicago has established itself as a leader in these categories, yet innovation requires constant assessment and action. It is our duty as local innovators to strive day-in and day-out to seek improvement – setting Chicago apart from the national – and global – competition. 

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