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diversity and inclusioninnovation

Leverage Diversity to Drive Innovation

A blog by Maria Thompson, Global Innovation Process Director at ITW

Many companies have robust frameworks and initiatives to advance their diversity and inclusion efforts. Increasingly, we see more diversity in our leadership teams and our corporate boards. Many of us continue to work on enhancing STEM education to attract more girls and young women into STEM-related fields. Often, we have a strong focus at the top and the bottom of our organizations, but are we as purposeful in engaging our female talent in our daily innovation activities?

In a BCG-Technical University of Munich study, researchers found a direct relationship between innovation and four types of diversity – industry background, country of origin, career path and gender. A study by North Carolina State University showed that companies that “check all the diversity boxes” enhance their innovation efficiency. Further, a Harvard Business Review article proposes that it’s important to go beyond diversity to also focus on inclusion – establishing a culture in which all employees feel free to contribute their unique ideas – to drive exponential innovation.

At ITW, our innovation philosophy is rooted in Customer-Back Innovation (CBI) – working “from the customer back,” deeply understanding our customers’ problems and developing novel, value-added solutions that solve those problems. The CBI process enables our teams to deliver a steady flow of differentiated new products and solutions to our most important customers and contributes approximately 1600+ new patent applications each year.

To deliver these differentiated and innovative solutions, we need more diversity of thought in our innovation practices. One way we do this is through Structured Brainstorming sessions. As more women participate in these, sessions the conversation dynamics change and the spectrum of ideas generated broadens. The unique perspective that women bring into the innovation process often results in additional customer benefits, differentiating features, even alternate uses for an invention.

The more intentional I have been facilitating a diverse participant blend of gender, backgrounds and fields of expertise, combined with a methodology where everyone can safely share their unique ideas, the greater the quantity and quality (e.g., creativity) of the resulting solutions. In one four-hour ideation session, a group generated over 170 ideas that were further enhanced to produce 35 novel and patentable designs to review with our customers.

Start Your Own Structured Brainstorming Sessions

Anyone can take small steps to integrate more diversity of thought into the innovation process. Consider creating an inventors’ group for women or coordinating Structured Brainstorming sessions. Here are eight steps to get started:

  1. Encourage brainstorming. Learn how to facilitate brainstorming or find a colleague who is comfortable with group facilitation.
  2. Identify interested female colleagues from multiple functions and disciplines, and gather them together for a monthly lunch.
  3. Recruit for diversity of thought. Identify people from all functions: engineering, marketing, sales, finance, sourcing, product development, operations or field service.
  4. Align your creativity with your company’s goals by identifying gnarly problems that your industry, customer or business hasn’t yet solved and reframe them into sub-problems, with relevant Who, What, When, Where, Why and How questions for participants to answer.
  5. Focus each meeting on one gnarly problem. Give your team one hour, and have two or three PowerPoint slides with one broad open-ended question and three to five sub-questions that ask participants to consider potential concepts or methods to address the broader open-ended question.
  6. Pair diverse inventors to discuss and generate potential answers (concepts) to each of the questions, spending a minimum of 15 minutes on each PowerPoint slide.
  7. Post-session: Evaluate, strengthen and/or prototype the most-promising concepts.
  8. Meet with your patent counsel to determine which concept implementations are novel or unique and have high business value.

Before you know it, you’ll build a cadre of capable women you can include in any creative problem solving, brainstorming or inventing session to generate novel, differentiated, high-value solutions your customers will love.

You can learn more about Structured Brainstorming (Directed Innovation) in Maria Thompson’s co-authored book, The Innovation Tools Handbook, Vol. 3, published September 17, 2016, CRC Press, IAOIP @



BCG and the Technical University of Munich, April 26 2017.

Lorenzo, Rocio et al. “The Mix That Matters: Innovation Through Diversity.” 

North Carolina State University:

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