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Innovation Starts with Innovative Leaders

Developing a culture of continuous innovation requires building innovation as a competency across an organization, and that starts at the top. I previously outlined what an Innovation Management System is, and it starts with hiring and developing leaders who understand what innovation is, and can build a company to support it.

Although I’ve been in the technology industry for over 20 years, and implemented countless improvements across many industries and geographies, not until recently did I even think about innovation as an organizational competency, similar to Product Management, Sales, Human Resources, etc. I thought of innovation more along the lines of "what problems are we having that we should solve next?, or “wouldn’t customers like to have Y?”. I would talk to the CEO or my peers, and we would all brainstorm some ideas and then go off and build.

That’s what I thought innovation was. I was wrong. We did create innovation for sure, but the problem was it was unfocused. We did it for the sake of innovation, and because we felt it was a good idea. As a result, we wasted a lot of effort, time, and resources, which could have been much better spent in other ways.

Here are a few things we didn’t reliably do:

  1. Look at the company strategy, and make sure that the strategy was sound and guided the organization to an effective long-term goal the company understood.

  2. Evaluate ideas against the company strategy, to ensure they would support it, we could evaluate how much, and prioritize the ideas by those which would augment the strategy the most.

  3. Intentionally build teams to enable innovation, by hiring the right skill sets, and allocating the right leader who had an innovation mind-set appropriate for the size and scale of challenge.

  4. Create reward systems that incentivized effective innovation, instead of innovation for innovation’s sake.

  5. Monitor how effective our innovations were over time, to learn and improve in the future.

The end-result is that we did a lot of stuff. We worked hard at it. Long hours, late nights. Lots of stress. And we were proud when we released because we accomplished something.

But did it make a difference for the company? In all honesty, often it didn’t. The projects almost always delivered something useful—fixed a problem or created a new feature—but many projects made no material impact to the company’s strategy or customers. Yet, because our compensation systems often reward for output (project delivery), we were rewarded. And so we continued the cycle. All of these reasons, and more, are why so many projects fail to deliver the intended business results.

Does your organization work like this? If so, the first way to fix it is to educate your leadership about innovation, and develop the skill like the capability it is. This starts with understanding business concepts, such as the S-Curve of Growth, and where your organization sits on the maturity curve. This can tell you how dire it is for your company to innovate, before it is at risk. It includes defining what “innovation” means for your organization, and some of the theories behind it. I recommend it includes assigning the responsibility for innovation to a single employee, to manage the function, similar to Sales, Human Resources, or Information Technology, which all should support innovation.

With these changes you can start your journey to improving innovation and create much higher growth and return for your company. Hiring good and proven leaders is great, but educating leaders about the competency of innovation will significantly increase the likelihood of success. Reach out if you want to learn more!

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