Leading Strategic Innovation

Innovation is all about creating new ideas and selling them.  To successfully innovate in an organisational setting a number things need to happen:

  • Individuals need to enlarge their toolsets to think differently;
  • Groups must have a culture that supports risk, to ensure new ideas are not ‘killed’ at inception;
  • Organisations must structure themselves so that innovation is part of its strategic focus;
  • The market must see the opportunity and value;
  • Society must accept as legitimate, supporting community values and aspirations;
  • Technology must be developed  to make the innovation ready for prime-time.

venn-diagram-2-at-440

These six factors constitute constraints to innovation.  Why do organisations, who say they want innovation, systematically put-up barriers to constrain new ideas from being formulated?  Why does innovation fail more often than not?  At the heart of most tales of innovation are stories of frustration, road-blocks, show-stoppers, and fate.  As the rate of product and service innovation speeds up, so does the innovation imperative.  The key to driving innovation is leadership that not only manages the constraints, but also enables aspiring innovators to successfully innovate.

There are no best-practice solutions to seed and cultivate innovation. While senior managers cite innovation as an important driver of growth, few of them explicitly have the skills to lead and manage it.  There are a whole gamut of questions around the person specification for this role – is it a training issue, should leaders be generalists or specialists, and so on? Leaders of innovation are people who are connectors – bringing disparate areas of the organisation together and divergent threads of conversations and ideas, and curating the conversation. And, because they see across divisions and into connections, they are able to align resources and focus time and energy on productive, meaningful work.  Innovation leaders understand the need for a deep understanding of the non-linear, of the role of emotional intelligence, and the increasing complexity and rapidity of change that is the new normal.

At its core innovation leadership is about understanding the constraints framework that can stymie innovation, and discerning a way to diagnose which of the constraints is particularly critical and will need to be managed.

In developing an innovation strategy there are some key deliberations:

  • Start small – learn by doing and build on your experience;
  • Build a portfolio – use a variety of attempts to learn what works and ensure that something works, the risk on any one project is modest;
  • Abandon projects appropriately – create an environment where people want to move on from low probability projects;
  • Support your innovators – don’t delegate innovation to specialists, but use specialists to support innovation;
  • Reward effort, punish inaction;
  • Intervene when groups go wrong – but set them up so they can succeed;
  • Set clear expectations about good effort, and encourage early experimentation.

Further reading:

Owens, David (2012) Creative people must be stopped.  Jossey-Bass.

Innovation: Time to Ditch “Model T Leadership”. Forbes.

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