Don’t Waste Dumb Money:

The 3 Things About Innovation Every Leader Should Know

Published on: May 2017

Written by: Peter Mulford

Bill wasn’t the first Chief Innovation Officer I’d met who was distressed by innovation, but he was the most colorful.

“The market for innovation consulting feels like a gold rush,” he said. “There’s a lot of dumb money spent chasing bad ideas. In five years everyone will know the good from the bad, but I can’t afford to wait five years. I don’t have dumb money to waste.”

Bill’s sentiment, as it turns out, is quite common. Even by today’s frenetic standards, the explosion of “Innovation” catchphrases is blistering. Design Thinking. Lean Start Up. Agile Innovation. Disruptive Innovation. Boxes and Whitespaces. Future Back—these are just a few of the offers on hand. And more are on the way, fueled by a mass of enthusiastic experts, academics, and gurus. In principle each offer has merit. In practice the cacophony is sowing confusion and misalignment in many departments and organizations. It makes “innovation” more difficult than it needs to be. So here are three things that you, as a leader focused on developing your organization’s capacity for innovation, need to know to take the mystery and misery out of innovation at your firm. And to set your business up for success.

How to Start Innovation Leadership

1. Innovation is an approach to finding and solving problems in new ways under conditions of uncertainty

Details: At the core, “Innovation” (regardless of the word you use to define it) is just another tool in a leader’s toolkit for solving a certain type of problem: Typically, a problem for which either no solution currently exists, or for which a radical new approach is warranted. Examples of this include: How might we get a quantum reduction in our freight cost per unit? How might we re-imagine the way our partners grow revenues inside an account? How might we re-invent the insurance buying experience?

Implications: When you define Innovation as an approach to problem solving, it forces your team to begin with an important question: What is the problem we are trying to solve for which we believe ‘Innovation’ is the solution? From here you can be thoughtful about whether you are solving a problem that actually matters for the firm, and whether “innovation” is actually the right approach to use.

2. Your Innovation Strategy must be designed to advance your Firm Strategy, or else it may retard it.

Details: If your company is like many companies we work with, innovation is happening in disparate pockets, headed by a variety of disparate teams and “centers of excellence,” cultivated in disparate initiaves and “Jams,” and learning is collected in disparate places, if it is collected at all. Waste is rampant. Links to the company strategy are sporadic, or unclear. And, in the absence of a clearly defined innovation strategy, your people didn’t have a choice but to do it this way.

Implications: A cogent innovation strategy is a set of choices about where and how to allocate time and energy towards innovation in the pursuit of overall company’s goals. To execute an innovation strategy successfully, leaders must identify and communicate clearly what type of innovation they want from their people, and to what end: how those efforts are tied to the firm’s vision, strategy, and objectives.

3. Every competitor is using the same innovation methods as you – but the methods are not the issue.

For those worried about falling behind their opponents when it comes to innovation, the good news is that most of your competitors are using the same techniques as you are. (In fact, any innovation vendor/consultant who is intellectually honest will tell you that 90% of what they teach is re-branding of ideas that have been around since the 1950s). The bad news is that the techniques are not the issue. The real issue is your leaders’ mindset and willingness to create an environment in which the techniques can be used in the first place. We know from behavioral economics research that resistance to innovation can be high among many of your individual managers and leaders, Left unaddressed, this resistance will retard or even destroy your innovation ambitions.

Implications: Building the leadership capacity for innovation deserves your attention. Before you start to look at techniques or technology, you should evaluate the personal capabilities of the leaders responsible for creating the environment in which your people would use them. Leader by leader, ask: Does the leader love learning and experimentation, or deride it? Do they believe in the science of diversity and Idea flow, or do they see success coming from inward focus and regressive, blinkered thinking? Do they embrace uncertainty, or flee from it? Do they multiply the creativity of the people around them, or squash it and tell them to get back to work? These are the fundamental questions that must before answered and addressed if any innovation model or approach is to have a chance of sticking and surviving.

In summary, Innovation is here to stay. The way you define, develop, and use innovation in your firm will have profound implications for how work gets done, and the results you see. And so, clearly defining innovation as a problem-solving approach, tying it to the company strategy, and working out the leadership component are three steps you should take up front that will reduce much mystery and misery later.

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