Innovation, Creativity, And Learning

By combining new research on the value of cross-cultural collaboration with five key discovery skills, organizations can leap forward in fostering a learning environment that promotes creativity and innovation.

Innovation and creativity cannot be taught in a classroom. But they can be learned. That learning occurs by placing individuals in situations that challenge them to think and act in new and unexpected ways.

In “Cross-Cultural Bonding Leads to Higher Creativity,” William Maddux and Andrew Hafenbrack report that “organizations can foster a more creative workforce by embracing diversity and then capitalize on it through facilitating close cross-cultural collaboration among employees.” Their research, published by INSEAD, strongly supports the idea that cultural differences should be treated as “priceless learning opportunities.”

In their seminal work, “The Innovator’s DNA,” Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen describe the five key “discovery skills” that distinguish the most creative executives:

  • Associating
  • Questioning
  • Observing
  • Experimenting
  • Networking

They found that innovative leaders and entrepreneurs who are also CEOs spend 50 percent more time on these discovery activities than do CEOs with no track record for innovation (


By combining the new research on the value of cross-cultural collaboration with the five key discovery skills, organizations can leap forward in fostering a learning environment that promotes creativity and innovation.

What can organizations do to promote these opportunities?

  1. Create diverse project teams. Diverse teams that are led by those selected due to their subject matter expertise, as well as their Cultural Intelligence (CQ) and concern for inclusion, can combine collaboration with the discovery skills. Leaders of such teams can help team members identify underlying cultural differences that otherwise might undermine a team. For example, the leader can point out that in some cultures, trust is created by sharing an experience together, so the leader might arrange a dinner or social outing all can enjoy. This time to get to know each other better can have a significant impact on the team’s success. Leaders who are sensitive about Unconscious Bias might be careful to not allow males to interrupt females when they are speaking . Or they may give those who speak English as a second language more time to make a presentation.
  2. Experience another culture at home. There are many ways organizations can promote opportunities for their employees to experience another culture, and they do not necessarily require a passport. The opportunity to experience anther culture can be promoted by Learning and Development (L&D) through projects in under-served neighborhoods or in communities known for their distinct ethnic character. Ideally, participants should be fully engaged with members of the community and have an opportunity to share experiences, histories,
  3. Learn from short-term business travel. Exposure to new ideas and new frames of reference can occur even on short-term business trips. The key to taking advantage of short-term opportunities is to plan two to three days of immersion in the destination immediately before or after the “official business.” Such immersion can take the form of asking co-workers in another country if you can shadow them for a couple of days and note any differences in normal operating procedures. These can range from length of workday, breaks, lunches, and socializing to office arrangements, meeting styles, commuting norms, etc. It is important that these differences be discussed with your host associates, so the rationale behind the difference is exposed. In addition to spending a couple of days in a co-worker’s shoes, you can take a mini-immersion program in the culture through a short-term educational experience. These can be in the form of a cooking program, art tour, historical visit, or finding a guide to show you an insider’s view of their culture. It is important that there is an opportunity for conscious reflection on the experience. Keeping a journal or traveling with others who are looking to learn about other cultures are good ways to deepen and sustain the experience.
  4. Seek an international assignment. Many organizations today have created development opportunities for employees to build their cultural intelligence. These include short-term international assignments, global leadership development programs for high potentials, and longer-term international assignments. There is a direct correlation between international experience and innovation. Those who seek out and participate in these assignments will gain insights that cannot be taught in a classroom or through virtual experiences.

Make friends who are culturally different. For some, the idea of stepping out of their comfort zone may be a challenge, but if you can join a club or activity where there is a common interest with people who are culturally different, you may find an easy avenue to establish friendships that will open you to new learning opportunities. Many organizations have created Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), which leverage the insights of diverse groups of employees. These ERGs usually encourage membership from those outside their group to join them. This is another opportunity to see the world from another perspective and build your innovation and creative skills.

There are many other ways organizations and individuals can build these skills. Please send ideas, case studies, and best practices that can be included in future columns to me at:

Neal Goodman, Ph.D., is president of Global Dynamics, Inc., a training and development firm specializing in globalization, cultural intelligence, effective virtual workplaces, and diversity and inclusion. He can be reached at 305.682.7883 and at ngoodman@globaldynamics. com. For more information, visit http://www.globaldynamics. com.

Dr. Neal Goodman is an internationally recognized speaker, trainer, and coach on DE&I (diversity, equity, and inclusion), global leadership, global mindset, and cultural intelligence. Organizations based on four continents seek his guidance to build and sustain their global and multicultural success. He is CEO of the Neal Goodman Group and can be reached at: Dr. Goodman is the founder and former CEO of Global Dynamics Inc. (now part of Evans Consulting).