The following process is not a linear blueprint for success. It’s not a series of infallible steps that will lead you toward innovation, market leadership and world domination. This is a set of ideas and practices for generating new value in the form of innovative products and services. It requires that you participate in the journey.
We urgently need a process by which we can accelerate our new product and value creation pipelines. We’ve discovered an innovation delivery gap that is shrinking.This gap is between an organization’s ability to create new and distinctive value the market recognizes and rewards and the speed at which competitors can emerge and deliver innovative products and services to the market.
Several accelerating forces are influencing this competitive marketplace innovation gap.These include the ubiquity of technologies that enable global collaboration and the increased accessibility of new ideas and commercial opportunities in emerging markets. Added to these are the broader adoption of open innovation practices and companies’ increasing tendencies to develop capabilities with individuals and groups outside of their own organizations.
The volatility of the current economy is demanding that organizations become agile in order to survive.The companies emerging from the global financial crash of five years ago are those that are embracing new management practices.
Innovation is creativity in action. Everyone can be creative and contribute to innovative outcomes that create economic value and competitive advantage. Innovative leaders nurture, act upon, implement, and take creative ideas into breakthrough change and invention. It’s not enough to just be ambitious and determined anymore. Leaders must hire, inspire and develop innovative people while stirring curiosity, creativity, relationship building, global awareness and integrity.
Trust: Establish the Engine of Leadership
To find new paths to innovation, the expectation is that we all have a shared understanding of some of the foundational aspects of leadership, starting with building trust, which means keeping business operations transparent. To be innovative leaders, we must build on this base by constantly reiterating and communicating core ideas, using powerful stories to propel change, modeling the behavior we wish to see, and above all, creating and sustaining energy in others in the organization.
If we want those in our organizations to remember the key priorities or to remember the reasons why we’re going in a certain direction, we need to develop and share strategic stories that help remind others of the purpose of their work and what they must consider in making decisions. People remember little from looking at data and statistics, yet easily recall compelling stories. If we want people to behave in particular ways when they are away from us — which is much of the time — we should use provocative stories that have a singular message and require a few key actions to achieve the depicted goal.
Great leaders love what they do and feel great purpose in it. That rubs off on those they work with. It’s hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm of the person who is leading us. Innovative leaders don’t think of themselves as sitting at the top of an organization they oversee but rather as supporting people and processes from beneath, as a servant to the organization.The innovative leader has a persistent and unwavering commitment to constantly sustain and grow the energy of others in these ways:
• Create and Communicate a Compelling Vision of the Future: The key word here is compelling. Those energizing individuals capable of instilling a powerful and compelling vision of the future are able to convey a future they envision that is both believable and feasible as a goal.
• Convey That Others Are Making Meaningful Contributions: Specific praise and recognition of individual contribution is a hallmark of strong energizers. Skilled energizers also build opportunities for people to make contributions.
• Identify and Convey a Clear Sense of Progress: It is not monumental breakthroughs or audacious aspirations that sustain individual motivation. Rather, it is constant progress and work that holds meaning for that individual making consistent and measurable steps forward on a daily basis.
• Fully Engage in Each Interaction: In each interaction, energizers, however powerful or important the world believes them to be, will make every person feel as if he or she is the most interesting, important and valuable person in the room.
Inquiry: Provoke with Questions, Not Answers
In the inquiry part of the innovation journey, we ask, probe, investigate, and remain ever open and curious about the paths on which our inquiry may take us. We need to follow the positive idea threads that matter to us. Inquiry applies to the people, the places and the processes in which we participate — who, where and how we ask questions. In the context of developing innovation, the power of inquiry can be enhanced in each of these domains. The goal here is to ask those creative questions that will drive tangible innovation that is meaningful and valuable.
Expose yourself to new external environments outside of your current domain expertise and work groups. Become more connected to people and ideas that may positively influence your thinking. Finally, get curious. Curiosity about the ideas of others can drive innovation in leaders. In moments of curiosity, we find ourselves extracting the most out of experiences.We ask probing questions, read deeply with intent, manipulate and examine objects, and persist in activities and tasks that we find both challenging and stimulating.
We have to nurture curiosity continually to enable creativity to emerge. We do this by remaining open to all ideas and new ways of seeing the world. Experiences, emotions and understandings of information that confronts us tend to converge in our minds as we try to make sense of it. Yet innovative ideas and solutions often require our thinking to diverge out from a central idea or experience.
To accelerate and sustain our own ability to innovate, we must first change our approach to thinking — step out of cognitive ruts we may have developed or that were imposed on us, and embrace divergent thinking without fear. A few strategies to nurture such thinking include allowing all ideas to surface without bias, pursuing “accidental” innovation, choosing ideas carefully, and exercising optimistic thinking.
Exploration: Go to the Woodshed
Innovation may start with a spark of inspiration and be fed by aspiration, but every new idea needs to be probed, prodded and explored in detail. This component of the innovation journey requires work, grit, determination and unflagging perseverance to maximize innovation within ourselves, inspire others to do the same, and ultimately contribute to the innovative end result to which we aspire. It’s in this part of the innovation journey that we are most likely to get distracted or lose momentum. It is grit — perseverance and passion for long-term goals plus a willingness to remain tenacious in the face of adversity — that leads to deep expertise and mastery necessary to propel innovation.
A key component of companies that differentiate themselves well from their competitors is the ability and willingness to put a stake in the ground on key market expertise. Developing deep niche expertise is critical to making valuable contributions. It requires developing the right kind of cultural environment and expectations, including clearly defined and valued products and services in the market. To develop such deep expertise, employees need the time and space to fully explore their ideas.
Aspiration: Dream Well —You May Find Yourself There
Aspiration can come from many sources, but often it’s from a person, fictional or real, whom we find heroic. Emulating the traits of heroes is an important part of realizing the aspirational self and leader. An aspiration is not only an articulated goal but also a feeling of hope and optimism about an intended success as well as a tangible outcome. Aspiration is one of the most powerful ideas leaders can give to others:
• Share Truth: To get closer to the truth and gain higher aspirations of everyone in the organization, first we have to find the hidden truths and share them. We have the obligation to say out loud when we don’t know the intricacies of complex projects, and we expect and demand that those closest to the detail publicly bring to the surface any concerns.
Offer Hope: Innovative leaders recognize their capacity for inspiring greatness in those around them. When we focus our energies on developing the potential of those around us instead of pandering to those above us, we, our team, our department and our entire organization become far more successful.
Focus on the Team, Not the Boss: If we go in with a grand plan to make a difference and expect people to execute on it without involving them in its development, we’ve lost their buy-in. When we don’t engage our team members, paralysis can set in, or a catastrophe can occur that keeps us from delivering on a project.
Play to an Individual’s Aspiration and Strengths: The best coaches develop a deep emotional fluency such that they have a strong understanding of their players’ strengths.
Expect the Best of Everyone: By simply expecting the best of those around us, they can live up to that higher expectation, even if it isn’t even explicitly stated. People around us respond to our body language, nonverbal cues and vocal intonation in addition to what we actually say.
Develop the Guru in Others: By tapping into the intrinsic motivation to build an eternal legacy of wisdom, executives see clearly that they have a path to create a legacy and preserve their own immortal wisdom through others. To be successful, the entire organization must adopt a higher aspiration.
Develop Higher Aspirations As an Organization: By sustaining not only the business but also other dimensions that drive social and environmental value, companies can prosper successfully in multiple dimensions. By simply changing the shared aspiration of the organization, we change the behavior and outcomes of those within it.
Edge: Embrace New Kinds of Risk
In the innovation process, the edge is where we experience a heightened sense of engagement, accelerated learning and creativity. “Flow” is the mental state in which a person is fully focused on what he or she is doing, where he or she is totally immersed in an activity. Being truly engaged frees those in flow to be deeply curious and explorative. They are more about solving a puzzle — finding out what lies beneath the surface of a problem — than about power, position and money.
We face risk to ourselves and our companies in every component of the innovation process. We can risk our ability to operate — to produce, deliver and support our products and services in the market. We can also take social risks — to our reputation, brand identity and social integrity. Risk can increase exponentially as we push ourselves and our companies to the edge of our creative capacity, but it can also hone our innovative abilities.
Embracing innovation means embracing risk. It starts when we first share our ideas with others. Even in the most open, welcoming environment, we risk the opinion others have of us, our credibility, even our jobs.While what seems like a wild idea at first can ultimately bring hugely positive results, it can also make others, even ourselves, question our common sense, if not our sanity.
If we carry this willingness to risk our personal reputations to the way we interact with our customers and speak to markets, we can recognize a significant upside without risking operational integrity.
Connection: Collaborate to Innovate
An innovative effort based on trust, with appreciative inquiry, great aspiration and deep exploration, can only be realized through the help and collaboration of others — through connection. It is the process component in which we, as individual contributors or leaders, reach out, engage and collaborate with those around us to discover powerful new ideas, leverage external expertise, and co-opt like-minded collaborators .
While we may start with our immediate and intimate circles of colleagues and friends on this part of the journey, we must go beyond that to connect with people who can bring new nuance, insight and skill to bear on the innovation challenge. Only by reaching beyond — and creating bridges from — our own immediate domain of expertise to cross-pollinate ideas, processes and components can we move forward in the innovation process.
To truly connect with people in our organizations, we should spend more of our time and energy as leaders asking them to examine more closely how they perform their tasks and collaborate as teams and how the organization as a whole operates.
Successful teams are the result of hiring the right people, building relationships among them based on trust and concern, creating a shared vision of mission, and keeping communication open. Diversity is the mark of great creative teams, where differences are strengths, not weaknesses. Connecting personally through deep listening and conversation is also crucial. If we slow down and listen, retain our curiosity about other peoples’ ideas and remain open to them, and ask the right questions to explore more deeply others’ views, people become more trusting. As a result, relationships will deepen, and conversations will become richer, opening the doors to innovation.
Mash-Up: Borrow Brilliance
One of the most exciting components of the innovation process is actively combining disparate ingredients to come up with a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Once we have connected to people who are doing innovative work in separate domains, we can begin combining these ideas in our work environment by applying what we have learned elsewhere and inviting others to participate in the process. By constantly mashing up ideas, concepts, applications and other disparate outcomes gathered from our diverging ventures, we invent powerful new combinations.
Great ideas are built on the shoulders of giants — that is, most of what seems to be original thought is in fact built on the strength of the thoughts of those who came before us, who in turn based their thoughts on those before them. Once we accept the fact that we build on the creativity of others, our creative process becomes deliberate and intentional. Because we never know where a good idea may be lurking, we need to look everywhere — other industries, science, art, music, society ... everywhere.
As we examine the ideas we borrow, we need to look at them from all angles with a fresh mind and be skeptical. We have to understand their weaknesses so that we can improve on them.The creative process is an evolutionary one, and the mechanism used to take it forward is judgment.
Unorthodox use of products is often the key to unlocking new value potential. The real purpose of a product is to do a job, and innovative thinking requires engaging the customer in the creative process to discover the jobs that need doing and the adaptations and innovations customers derive to get the job done.
Leaders need the backup of the organization and a global perspective to support the process of innovation. If we wish to encourage divergent thinking, thereby discovering new perspectives, we must tap into disparate cultural backgrounds.
Action: Get Moving or Accept the Consequences
The critical part of the journey is the doing — putting action to the words, values and ideas. All the curious inquiry, deep exploration, thoughtful conversation and mindful reflection won’t amount to any kind of innovation — much less remarkable innovation — unless we act. Action distinguishes innovation from creativity.
At this point in the journey, the volume of activity and experimentation is critical, and the innovative leader celebrates failure and success equally, punishing only in action. This part of the innovative process requires rapid prototyping and active experimentation. Many innovation journeys stall at this point because of failure to actually take out a hammer, put pen to paper, write the code, build the prototype, or otherwise get our hands dirty. One of the most important drivers of innovative outcomes is action that is novel and unique. Unfortunately, a characteristic of being human is a persistent sense of overconfidence when it comes to habitual activities.
We all often suffer from overconfidence in our abilities and knowledge of a wide range of subjects. We believe that we will be correct more often than we usually are regarding those behaviors and beliefs in which we regularly participate. If unchecked by organizational culture, managerial oversight and self-reflection, overconfidence can lead to failed endeavors and poor decisions for us and for our work. Here are a few actions and behaviors to help overcome decision overconfidence:
Solicit the Opinion of More People: When we ask a larger group of people their opinion on a question, their collective judgment is almost always better than our own.
Solicit Your Own Second Opinion: Try asking yourself the same scenario and decision outcome in a different way, and see if you come to the same conclusion.
Consider the Extremes: We should ask ourselves what we consider the extreme positive and negative boundaries of these outcomes.
Separate Our “Deciding” Self from Our “Doing” Self: When we conclude the deliberation, shift to our “doing” self, and act on that decision, it’s important to remain optimistic, focused and steadfast in supporting our “doing” self.
We can test hunches by assessing our experience with the situation or problem, gaining timely and direct feedback, recognizing the degree of complexity influencing cognitive and intuitive evaluations, and discerning the personal level of desire to take one course over another.
Signature: Make It Your Own
A signature innovation comprises the core identity of those who have joined in the innovation journey, executed with the unique personalities of everyone participating and sustained by the mission of the organization. Signature innovation isn’t easily copied or pirated because it comes out of a truly unique cultural identity within an organization.
Most organizations recognize and embrace the notion of modeling best practices — studying operations and teams that exemplify the kinds of traits and behaviors they wish to learn from and adopt. Such modeling can be useful in many situations to gain market share and adapt quickly to developing technologies. Being a fast follower — a second or third to market — can be quite powerful. Facebook came along after Friendster and MySpace were in the marketplace. The iPhone was eight years late to the smart- phone business.
Yet creating signature solutions is unlike a wholly borrowed, or “best,” practice. If a company aspires to being the best in its market, it has to lead. And only by the organization’s developing its own voice — its signature — can it attain this leadership position. A company with signature solutions will get unique products to market faster and establish brand loyalty because it doesn’t get bogged down in copying others or creating commodity products. Signature innovations are based on a unique blend of individual and organizational personalities, intention and convictions.
Purpose: Connect with “Why”
Business models, manufacturing and distribution processes, brand loyalties, pricing strategies and even profits are not why companies exist. To survive, companies must provide products and services that the market recognizes as valuable, and do so on a sustainable basis. To do this, companies need the committed creativity and involved passion and initiative of human beings. The surest way of gaining this is to connect people with a greater sense of purpose. No matter how mundane or utilitarian an employee’s task may seem, the greatest leaders can help connect that task and that person to a greater sense of meaning.
Ultimately, innovative products that have lasting value in the world must be connected to a larger purpose — one beyond self or financial gain — that serves the community touched. Why? Because with purpose we bring something of greater value to our community — local, national or global.
Business gurus suggest that employees should be comforted and heartened by the knowledge that the product they are contributing to matters to the customers they serve. Here’s the thing: no matter how hard we try to sell the company to our employees, they still won’t buy it until they are sold on who they are. Until people find out their own “why” — their own reason for doing what they do — they aren’t going to buy the why of their boss or the why of the company they work for. Until people feel wholly fulfilled, focused and energized by their own core personal mission and focus, they aren’t going to care completely about their employer’s version of why. Truly creative people are intrinsically motivated, working for the sheer joy of it. As people’s options and choices increase, so does intrinsic motivation.
Sustaining the Innovative Mindset
If we are to sustain innovation in our business lives, we have to selectively abandon past behavior and pick up new habits and actions in equal parts. What is happening today may not be happening tomorrow; trends come and go, but constantly looking for ways to improve a product or process, or invent a new one, will keep us competitive in an ever-changing marketplace.
Seismic changes in the world have brought about increased connectivity, interrelatedness and interdependency. In such a rapidly changing world, no matter how cataclysmic the change, being optimistic about the future and embracing continual innovation are key to growth and stability. Change and upheaval clear the ground of orthodoxy and prime the pump for an explosion of ideas.
To keep moving ahead, organizations will have to keep rethinking and redefining their systems. Few of the traditional, orthodox methods and systems will be enough to carry us through the century and beyond.
Remaining curious, growing a repertoire of ideas, creating new mash-ups, and cross-pollinating ideas with others is the new path that leaders must take.T he path leads to taking bold actions that create new value.