By Claudia Reuter, Vice President, HMH Labs
“Innovation” has become such a popular buzzword that it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint its true meaning. In Boston and throughout the state, we’re surrounded by innovation—in education, technology, medicine and more—and we tend to think of it as aligned with scientific discovery, ground-breaking research or unbelievable feats of engineering. But innovation is about more than unveiling the next big thing.
I recently took on a challenge that has expanded my own thinking on innovation—I became vice president of HMH Labs at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a global learning company with nearly two centuries of experience in providing education content, services and technology. “HMH Labs” is a new incubation hub in our Boston headquarters that creates a space for ideation, experimentation and prototyping of digital education solutions. Upon hearing the news of my new role, several people reached out to ask what kind of brain research I was doing. To many, the title of “Labs” somehow meant that I would be a lab-coat wearing, beaker-holding scientist tasked with coming up with a game-changing idea using test tubes and chemicals. Well, I’m not.
I’ve learned a great deal in my tenure so far, and I’ve found it useful to let my own definition of innovation evolve along the way. The reality is that being innovative isn’t always about what I can dream up personally. It’s about what I can do as a leader to facilitate fresh ideas. It’s about taking an optimistic approach to problems and bringing out creativity in our colleagues and ourselves.
Innovation Is a Process
To be innovative, the best teams start by assessing the problems consumers are facing. Having trouble finding information? Enter Google. Struggling with government forms, like taxes? Enter Intuit. Literally in the dark? Enter Edison.
When my team sets out to innovate, we don’t start with what any one person thinks would be “cool.” We start by asking what problems our customers are facing. And our solutions to those problems become our focal points.
As a learning company, HMH has an opportunity right now to assess how millions of people are engaging with content, and we have a responsibility to assess what’s working and what’s not and deliver new technology methods quickly. This is an integral part of innovation.
Innovation Isn’t Just for Start-ups
In addition to facing questions about the “brain research” I must be doing as VP of HMH Labs, I also got the sense that people didn’t naturally associate a 180-year-old company with innovation. Somehow, innovation has become a term reserved for start-ups, and in particular for start-ups run by young men wearing hoodies in Silicon Valley.
But creativity and entrepreneurial spirit aren’t new concepts, though Edison’s workshop no doubt looked different than the Google campus. While HMH was born long before the latest tech boom, its history is one of innovation. We’ve always been thinking about how to tell stories, engage curiosity and improve learning outcomes.
The recent wave of tech growth has also presented us with new celebrity innovators, like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. But you can’t under-emphasize the importance of the team—and a well-functioning team—to the innovative process. Great ideas come from various people and teams throughout an organization. If you really want to make a difference with your product, you have to work together and your team needs to work just as well with other teams in the company.
Collaboration Is Key
Early on in Labs, I knew that working cross-functionally within the company would be key to long-term success. If we were going to enhance the interoperability of our education solutions and explore new modes of delivery, we needed to reinforce the idea that innovation is a collaborative process, not an individual effort.
To help get creative juices flowing, we started an annual Hackathon event last year in HMH’s technology group. This year, we were able to take that event and expand it across the company. We had over 40 teams voluntarily participate from offices around the world and saw solutions developed from all parts of the company that can be used in support of HMH’s core mission. The teams included tech experts, but also employees who don’t spend their days coding. Everyone had valuable insights.
The Hackathon was a great team-building exercise, and helped to highlight all the different ways that new solutions can be developed. It was also a reminder that innovation is indeed a process. In order to set your sights high, it is important to let go of any preconceived notions about what success looks like or who can achieve it. By definition, innovation is dynamic, so don’t limit your or your team’s vision. Instead, ask questions. You’ll be surprised at where your creativity takes you.