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Fostering Innovation Through Diversity and Inclusion

"Our emphasis on diversity helps our project teams better understand and innovate the best possible solutions for our customers." – Maria Thompson, Global Innovation Process Director at ITW

At ITW, our commitment to diversity and inclusion is core to who we are as a company. Diversity and inclusion brings out the best in us – in our teams, our workplaces and our employees, but it also brings out the best in our innovations. Embracing diversity and inclusion when we innovate leads to better ideas, decisions and ultimately, more impactful products for our customers.

Our innovation philosophy is not one size fits all. Our Customer-Back Innovation process supports development of our differentiated products and services allowing us to innovate for our wide range of customers.

Our keen focus on our customers’ unique needs, the flexibility of our innovation process in supporting them, and diverse teams to create the next generation of our products are where Maria Thompson’s expertise comes in. As an innovation process leader and coach, Maria believes that diversity plays a part in every step of the innovation process.

How does ITW’s Customer-Back Innovation process support diversity among our customers?

The foundation of our innovation process is built on being intentionally customer-focused. Everything we do starts with our customers, and our products and services are developed to specifically address customers’ most critical pain points. No matter the ITW business, customer or product, one element is consistent: successful execution of ITW’s Customer-Back Innovation process requires alignment of our solutions with the needs of our diverse customer base.

How did you become focused on the power of diversity in innovation – in everything from our customers to our processes and teams?

I first started working in innovation, creativity, problem solving and invention in the 1990s. While working in a position where I was trying to unleash the creativity of others, I noticed that the makeup of many of the groups I was working with was predominately male, and I would be the only female participating. I noticed the kinds of solutions that I would generate to problems we were solving were very different from my peers, even when everyone in the group had similar backgrounds and levels of expertise. Noticing this, I made it a personal mission to engage many more people of all kinds of backgrounds and ethnicities in these events. I felt it was my role to make sure that we generated the best inventions, and divergent thinking is a key factor in producing novel concepts. There have been several studies that demonstrate the more diverse an inventing team is, the more likely their inventions are commercially viable. Over time, I continue to find that engaging multiple perspectives to solve a problem generates more possible solutions and increases the likelihood of creating a solution that meets or exceeds your customers’ needs.

Where do you start when seeking to understand the needs of a customer?

Across our seven ITW segments, as well as within them, our customers are very diverse. To have sustainably differentiated products, we need to have a deep understanding of our customers’ unique perspectives and needs. We are intentional about gathering perspectives from diverse functions and roles within our customers’ organizations. We employ a thorough interview process with our customers to make sure we understand all of the various perspectives, experiences and challenges that guide our innovations. By gathering multiple points of view, we derive customer value propositions that incorporate all key influencer perspectives.

Once we understand a variety of customer perspectives, we engage diverse perspectives on our ITW project teams to understand how we can address our customer’s pain points in novel and sustainably differentiated ways. Our project teams are stronger by incorporating diverse backgrounds, perspectives and functions.

How do you design and structure project teams to support diversity of thought when innovating?

There are many ways to introduce diversity to a project. My position is a support role for our businesses, so I help the team define the potential problem or hypothesis and help confirm the value of solving it. The first thing I do is find out who the lead people are that will be conducting interviews with customers. I work with the team leads and encourage them to put themselves in the customer’s shoes, to fully understand the challenge from the customer’s point of view.

Diversity of thought is not only about brainstorming multiple solutions. I encourage our teams to mitigate their own biases when trying to understand the customer’s problem. Listening skills are critical. We also must be very careful that when we bring back results of customer interviews and observations, we convey our findings in a way that engages diversity of thought from our project teams.

How do your teams integrate diverse thought into the innovations process?

We use a Structured Brainstorming approach at ITW. We intentionally bring together cross-functional ideation participants with diverse backgrounds and experiences. We prepare for these sessions by reframing the customer’s pain points in multiple ways to better engage and ignite diversity of thought amongst participants. It is important that the evaluation and selection of concepts are performed with a cross-functional core team with diverse perspectives, so that we don’t pick what’s easiest or most intuitive to implement, but rather what is of highest value to our customers.

How do our customers perceive the value of diversity in our innovations?

The differentiated value of our solutions resonates with our customers because we create innovations that address their greatest challenges. We fully understand all customer perspectives of value before we create a product that truly meets our customers’ needs. This connection to the customer comes from an appreciation and understanding of how the customer works and measures their results, rather than our own internal perspective of what we believe the customer needs.

How does diversity and inclusion connect our company culture to our innovations?

Understanding and appreciating the value of others’ perspectives is core to our company culture. We behave in a way that is consistent with our values by integrating diversity of thought into our working processes, culture and team composition. Our emphasis on diversity helps our project teams better understand and innovate the best possible solutions for our customers.

Our focus on diversity also brings out the unique skills and contributions of our colleagues, yielding more innovative customer offerings. This connection between diversity and the success of our teams, products and services is part of our corporate DNA. Diversity is a critical enabler of ITW performing to its full potential, and we are proud of the positive impact it has on both our employees and our customer base. 

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