Hands Up. Who Wants to Be An Innovator?

Back when I started my career (or when dinosaurs ruled the earth) there was a very different perspective of innovation and innovators.

They were an elite group of secret, almost mythical, creatures toiling away in labs far from the prying eyes of competitors or even colleagues without a C-suite designation. As a lowly advertising guy, you never saw these folks until your client was prepared to unveil the fruits of “Project Thunderstruck”. Another sign o’ the times – innovation projects weren’t funded unless they had some kinda quasi-military-superhero name.

That’s all changed.

Today every corporate press release, LinkedIn profile and company blog isn’t complete without innovation, innovative, innovator in every second sentence.

The perceived norm for innovation has moved from top-secret skunkworks to open and crowd-sourced, from the company-knows-best model to a consumer-collaborative one. Today all your employees are expected to be innovation engines and storied organizations like NASA actually want us, the general public, to weigh-in on their projects.

However does all this innovation talk really reflect a true sense of the market? Has innovation, like other popular phrases such as creativity and follow your passion, really seeped into the bloodstream of organizations.

Might I suggest these questions could help determine your real appetite for innovation;

Do you have a well-understood definition and expectation for innovation?

Innovation, like Strategy, is an amorphously-defined word by many executives. Are you looking for “big I” Innovation that will redefine your business and category or “little I” innovation where you’re polishing and refining processes, products and services incrementally? Simplistic as it may seem, if there isn’t a universally-understood definition of what innovation in your company, category means, how can you expect your people to know what’s innovative or not…and then act accordingly?

Do you have a culture that’s conducive to innovations and innovators?

I’m not talking the trappings of innovative or creative workplaces like beanbags, open concept offices and bring-your-dog-to-work-Fridays but a real cultural environment to foster innovation. Are your employees encouraged to tinker, play, build, question? Is that tinkering, playing, building deliberate, unexpected or unstructured? Do you have a process or framework that purposefully moves innovation from ideation to development and deployment? If you’re really committed to this innovation thang, it requires deliberation and purpose. Innovation happenstance makes for great scenes in a movie, not in the workplace.

Do you consider innovation your best opportunity for growth?

Many folks (way smarter than me) working in innovation consultancies tell me that many executives pay lip-service to innovation because they’re still obsessed with maximizing efficiencies and reducing operating costs. And when those have been maximized, going out and buying another company as the engine for future growth. These are important, even necessary, pursuits but they really only make your current organization more efficient – they don’t catalyze your organization to be more effective. If you genuinely buy into the potential of innovation you’re looking for ways to put jet fuel in the engine of your organization, not ways to make the windscreen and hubcaps shinier.

Are you actively and broadly sweeping for innovation impacting your business?

We’ve all read about Kodak, with an employee base of over a hundred thousand, being disrupted by Instagram with less than twenty employees. A spectacular story and a genuine cautionary tale but the story has a direct correlation to your commitment to innovation too. If you’re genuinely committed to innovation you’re deliberately and diligently seeking out innovative examples to watch, mimic or outright copy. If you’re not, I can guarantee your competition is. The flip of innovation as a growth engine is innovation as an engine for your demise.

Do you accept that innovation will disrupt your organization?

Innovation is scary. It means doing new things, with new people, new frameworks, all for the first time. Its also not 100% guaranteed to succeed. That’s enough to test the mettle of the bravest CEO. All sturm und drang aside, consultancies like IDEO, Stage Leap and Canadian firm Idea Couture have well-defined processes and experience traversing clients through those bumpy waters. But, trust me, it will be choppy and disruptive. If the thought of that disruption causes a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, I’d suggest you’re not really ready.

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Have you set aside budget and accountability for innovation in your company?

Such a fundamental point, perhaps I should’ve started here. You’re not really into innovation unless you have genuinely set aside real budgets and accountability for it. And not innovation as an intellectual “what if” exercise but as a demonstrable contributor to the company. Is there P&L attached to your innovation or have you merely added the word “innovation” to someone’s existing job description? If there’s no skin in the game or someone’s feet aren’t to the fire to deliver, then , mixed metaphors aside, innovation is a pet project, or worse a distraction, to your business.

As this wonderful article in The Atlantic suggests, innovation has a complicated, sometimes bloody history. However as the word – and all the accompanying descriptors – become more widely used, I think it is critical that each organization puts a stake in the ground.

Is innovation a real imperative for your company or merely the latest Bright Shiny Object?

I’d love your thoughts and feedback. Are there other determinants of companies truly committed to innovation. Sound off folks.

Published with permission.

 

About the author  ⁄ Hilton Barbour

Hilton Barbour

An insatiable curiosity is my defining characteristic. Which is probably why I got into advertising over 15 years ago. I know it aint a real job in comparison to say, a fireman or a nuclear physicist but hey. Along the way I've developed an opinion on a coupla things.

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