There is a lot of buzz around the word ‘innovation’ and how embracing it can transform your business. Similar buzz can also be heard on ‘Big Data’, ‘Customer-Centricity’ and ‘Agile’.
While apparent links can be drawn between these concepts, my focus today will be on Innovation, its potential for value creation and the common pitfalls organization face when looking to embrace it. But let’s start with understanding what does ‘innovation’ really mean?
To keep it simple, innovation means doing something new, different, smarter or better that will make a positive difference on the customers, the company or society as a whole. It can cover every aspect of the business – from products to services to your business model and processes.
Innovation has the potential to become the growth engine for companies and ensure their long term success and competitive advantage. And as such it has created a lot of attention in the forms of articles, conferences and several solutions such as ideation frameworks and open innovation platforms that can be implemented in enterprises worldwide.
I think that these ‘innovation accelerators’ can work for some organizations, benefiting them through two main forms, both of which I would position at the fringes of the core activity.
First, they can support the innovation flow such as the prioritization process, focus and alignment to strategy. Second, they help promote the behavioural change that comes with adopting a new approach, mindset and culture.
This leaves the core work of innovation mostly outside the influence of these activities.
Since the basic idea of innovation goes against any sort of limitations; either by process, policies, structure or rules, even a subtle restraint can trigger a negative reaction in the minds of those trying to innovate.
So if we believe even part of that hypothesis, what can we actually do to promote innovation in our organization?
How do you liberate people, without unleashing chaos? How do you give people a vision, without imposing an approach? How do you lead, while empowering others to be their own leader? And how do you do it all faster than your competitors?
I believe that creating the right atmosphere in the company with the appropriate balance between these tensions is the way to go. Finding the sweet spots between these important elements is what makes your company’s culture, which is centre to a conducive innovation environment.
Before going into some of them, it is important to understand that none of them are ‘a one-time fix’. They need to be constantly reminded, nurtured and maintained to really take effect through the various layers that make up your company.
Let’s view the one element that cuts across all the others – People. In organizations it is mainly manifested through Individuals, Teams, and Leaders.
When it comes to individuals, there’s a myriad of attributes we’d like to see in our employees. Smart, open minded, hungry, good judgment, challenging the status quo, comfortable with change and uncertainty, leaders in potential, professional and personal ethical, want to make an impact, etc..
A caveat to these or any other attributes is how you define and identify them. For example, does smart mean high IQ, EQ or both? Do they need to be subject matter experts or fast learners? Different definitions lead to different results.
I believe that while all attributes are important and need to be present in some capacity, there are a few that cannot be absent. Being professionally and personally ethical is paramount as it can help ensure employees always revert to doing what’s right when ambiguity arises.
For leaders we need to augment these attributes with a genuine interest in people. One can never be a good leader by solely following management protocols and seeing the management role as a ‘necessary evil’ for climbing the corporate ladder. The organization, on the other hand, needs to do a better job at finding those who are right to lead while providing non-management progress to others.
That’s not an easy task as agendas and politics sometimes obscure the reality and can affect the decision. A good indicator for a strong leader is the ability to perform as a team member as good as a leader in charge. Leadership is critical as the leaders usually have greater influence than the individuals in the company, and thus can have a tenfold impact on shaping the working culture.
To begin with I believe the basic unit and building block of the organization is the team, not the individual. A good and balanced team is able to create and deliver value to the customers faster. To create these high-performance teams, there needs to be balance between the individual attributes that make up the personalities on the team. Not everyone should score the same on the different attributes mentioned. Not everyone should have potential for people management and not everyone should necessarily be a leader. But everyone should have the passion, ethics and will to do what’s right.
Just like in professional basketball teams, you need a guard, a playmaker, a centre and a shooter that combined with the right culture can create a successful team. As the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, a National Basketball Association (NBA) team, recently mentioned: “the power of team trumps all”
WHAT ABOUT THE REST?
You may be asking what about collaboration, communication, empowerment, accountability, transparency, risk and more. All of which are important for innovation. And you may be right.
But without having the right individuals, leaders and teams to safeguard these important cultural elements, they may be deemed as words only.
The one element I would add is Data. Through data we can launch and iterate, experiment with products and services and be able to listen carefully to our customer’s engagements in order to make the best decision. But even objective data, without the professional and ethical people maintaining it, can be manipulated and abused.
BACK TO THE BASICS AND BACK TO WORK
Every corporation started out with a simple idea to solve a problem for customers. Let’s get back to the basics and focus on the reason our organizations began in the first place. Truly, the main way to innovate is to stop, listen to the customers and empower our people to come up with new solutions for them.
And if we cannot stand up to the formula of ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’, what is the reason to keep our people incorporated?