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7 ways to power innovation through inclusion and diversity

Diversity of all kinds yields better solutions to the most complex problems.

Future of Work|Inclusion and Diversity|Talent
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Paige Seaborn and Karen O’Leonard | June 5, 2020

Solutions to our clients’ most critical problems emerge from inclusive environments and diverse thinking where all colleagues can contribute.

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About Willis Towers Watson’s Horizons initiative

The Horizons innovation challenge is designed to encourage colleague collaboration on new products and solutions that, first and foremost, address the needs of our clients. It’s also an opportunity for colleagues to contribute to growth and new corporate revenue generation. The initiative supports our goal of continually learning, testing, optimizing and sharing insights in order better help clients meet challenges in an ever-changing world – throughout this period of crisis and beyond.

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates how connected we are today. Think about it: An outbreak of a new virus abroad has resulted in millions of infections across the globe in just a few months. The same virus has devastated economies worldwide and changed life as we know it for billions. While much about coronavirus and its ultimate impact remains unknown, one thing is clear: Meeting this global crisis will require teamwork and innovative solutions.

Through Willis Towers Watson’s Horizons innovation challenge, we’ve found that solutions to the most complex problems come from a vast range of sources. And they require a commitment to inclusion and diversity (I&D) to ensure a range of voices are heard, ideas are considered, and assumptions are identified and tested. 

Innovation doesn’t happen in a silo. If inputs are limited, then outcomes are also limited. To solve critical problems, we need to foster an inclusive culture that encourages diversity of thought, ensuring visibility for ideas and innovation on a global scale when faced with global challenges. This is achieved when all colleagues have the chance to contribute.

One of the best things about our Horizons innovation challenge is that we get to hear ideas from colleagues around the world with whom we might not otherwise interact. It’s a very bottom-up approach to innovation that was particularly successful this year, encouraging broad participation from colleagues of all levels, genders, backgrounds, geographies and areas of expertise. The finalists were seven women and six men representing seven countries: Brazil, China, India, the Philippines, Spain, the U.K. and the U.S. Brokers, consultants, actuaries and client managers contributed ideas that will become market-leading solutions to critical challenges around the world.

If you’re looking to increase innovation in your organization, here are seven ways to create an inclusive environment where innovation can thrive:

  1. Encourage innovators to work in teams. Sometimes it’s harder to put forward an idea alone, and more junior or less tenured colleagues may be deterred from voicing their ideas without the support of a team. Psychological safety is essential.
  2. Set up "jam sessions" to facilitate collaboration and provide the opportunity to build connections between different business areas and different parts of the world for greater cross-pollination of perspectives and bigger ideas. These can be virtual 90-minute brainstorming sessions with a diverse mix of colleagues focused on identifying problems and rapid ideation of solutions.
  3. Target new hires and younger-career talent with invitations to innovation events. New hires bring a fresh perspective into the company and come up with some of the best ideas. They are unencumbered by the notion of “we don’t do things that way around here” that can afflict some long-tenured employees. In fact, most finalists from Willis Towers Watson’s Horizons 2020 innovation challenge were hired in the last three years.
  4. Allow idea submitters to submit anonymously. We've found that many colleagues prefer to submit anonymously when given the option. In a global company, anonymity can also help level the playing field that local cultural mores might otherwise restrict.
  5. Seek to build a diverse group of local idea coaches who can help colleagues articulate their ideas. Writing an idea proposal is not everyone's day job and could be especially challenging for early career colleagues and non-English speakers. A local idea coach can help colleagues understand what a well-formed idea proposal should look like.
  6. Build an equally diverse group of reviewers to evaluate ideas. This ensures the merits and weaknesses of each idea are considered from multiple perspectives in order to select the best idea.
  7. Get your diversity office on board. Leaders can contact members of the network and encourage participation. Colleagues tend to be more likely to act when messages come from local leaders who act as advocates and champions.

While not everyone can contribute an idea, there are other ways for colleagues to get involved. One is through voting on the ideas contributed by others. Voting gives colleagues a voice in deciding which ideas the company pursues and gets colleagues enthusiastic about supporting local ideas and local colleagues. When colleagues contribute to idea selection by casting their votes, they get the chance to express a diverse range of opinions based on their experiences and clients’ needs. The results can be surprising and can provide leaders with unexpected insight into priorities around the world.

It pays to ensure all colleagues feel welcome to contribute to innovation. Greater engagement leads to greater diversity in our approach and higher quality business solutions to global challenges like COVID-19.


Head of Innovation

Senior Associate – Corporate Innovation

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