Industry Insights

Expert Insights : Leadership and Innovation

Posted by Niall McDonagh on Dec 9, 2019 12:03:13 PM

Innovation is, or certainly should be, at the heart of every company’s strategic priorities. These priorities may be phrased in different ways such as ‘growth’, ‘transformation’, ‘becoming more agile’, ‘creating new solutions’ or ‘building a customer centric culture’, but innovation is essentially what is needed. It is about questioning and challenging current business models, approaches, ways of working, orthodoxies and deeply ingrained but increasingly outdated and flawed beliefs - about our company, industry and the world in which we operate.

Innovation Talent

But it is then about generating and implementing the resulting ideas and solutions to create value for stakeholders, the definition of which is also much broader than it was just a few years ago (think about sustainability challenges, ecosystems, etc.).

Beyond the clear link between a company’s strategic priorities and innovation, there is another reason why companies should be redoubling their efforts to build organisational innovation capabilities. With the growing impact of technology, creativity and innovation will be amongst the few skills, along with strategy, critical thinking, empathy and communication, that will probably not be replaced by AI and robotics in the foreseeable future. (Source: Forbes: ‘7 Job Skills Of The Future (That AIs And Robots Can't Do Better Than Humans)’, 6 August 2018).

What is Innovation?

The mantra often broadcast today is that ‘innovation is everyone’s job’. This philosophy helps to engage and mobilise people and teams operating in different disciplines and activities across the organisation. It is a principle that takes innovation beyond the boundaries of the specialists in the Innovation or R&D departments. But as with any discipline, effective innovation relies on the application of appropriate methodologies, techniques and skills.

For example, if the innovation challenge relates more to business and market strategy or creating new solutions for new markets, Blue Ocean Strategy or the Business Model Canvas would be appropriate methodologies to explore. For developing a new product or service, Design Thinking would provide a good starting point. For generating ‘raw’ ideas to address a specific challenge in virtually any context, common creativity techniques (brainstorming, reverse-brainstorming, random input, metaphorical thinking etc.) would no doubt be useful. However, the most impactful approach would be to view the challenge through different lenses by applying more than one methodology. 

This raises a key question: what is the difference between innovation and creativity? A simple and pragmatic view is that creativity is about conceiving new ideas, usually by exploiting non-linear or associative thinking, whereas innovation could be defined as the profitable implementation of ideas. Creativity is therefore only one component of innovation.

This is supported by a significant and recent research project by Swarm Vision, a Silicon Valley start-up, which goes further and identifies 8 fundamental innovation skills. Based on what Swarm claims to be the world’s largest study of serial, successful innovators (entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs), it has identified 8 Innovation skills (and 26 sub-skills), of which Create is only one:

  • Drive (Ambition, Initiative, Intensity, Persistence)
  • Disrupt (Boundary-breaking, Thriving in uncertainty, Self-confidence)
  • Create (Novelty-seeking, Problem-solving, Uncommon connections, Growth mindset)
  • Connect (Relating, Persuading, Team-building, Social intelligence)
  • Control (360-degree involvement, Competitiveness, Financial orientation)
  • Think (Information Capacity, Rapid Pattern Recognition, Reflection)
  • Deliver (Contextual Goal- orientation, Resourcefulness, Adaptability)
  • Give (Benefitting others, Making the world better)

Logic would therefore dictate that if a team needs to deliver innovation results, the collective skills of the team should tick all of these 8 boxes. I wonder how often these skills are actively considered when project teams are being formed!

Who Should Own Innovation in Your Company?

There is increasing evidence that work is becoming more task and project based around mission-critical activities. This is being driven by several factors and trends: AI and the automation of routine tasks and processes which have historically defined or at least influenced company functions and the structure of an organisation; the continuing move to outsource non-core, non-value-adding or inefficient activities combined with the growth of the gig economy which is being fueled by the inherent characteristics and career-influencing motivations of Gen-Y (Millennials) & Gen-Z. If we combine these factors with the accelerating pace of change, the expanding scope and complexity of a company’s ecosystem in many industries and a general increase in competitive intensity, agility and time-to-market are absolutely critical to business success.

What this means is that businesses and leaders must become more adept in bringing people together for specific activities and projects. This also means challenging conventional thinking and assumptions about who to include in the project team, including partners and contributors from outside of the organisation.

Typically, the composition of project teams focuses on bringing together subject matter experts from the areas affected and concerned. Although this seems sensible and is necessary, it is not sufficient. Furthermore, project team members, even teams focusing on a specific innovation objective, are often selected based on their performance within an established business context. Sometimes simply on availability! Considering the findings of Swarm’s research, these common approaches to the formation of project teams seem flawed.

As Suzan Briganti, Swarm Vision’s founder and CEO explains,

“Swarm research found that, while all humans are innovators to some degree, individuals do vary widely in their innate innovation talent. Think about it. In no other competitive activity – from sports to business to politics – do we insist that everyone is equally skilled or motivated. Imagine putting a football team together with such a naïve approach!  Our research shows that individuals and teams with coverage of all 8 innovation talents are significantly more successful. With Swarm, staffing for innovation is no longer a mystery, or game of chance.”

If these teams are going to be effective in terms of innovation, which for reasons stated above is essential to business success, if not survival, it will be critical that they have the appropriate innovation skills, capabilities and mindsets to perform effectively.

How to Leverage Your Hidden Innovation Talent?

There is no ‘silver bullet’ or single solution to identifying and leveraging your organisation’s hidden innovation talent. However, here are a few suggestions that should help you to move in the right direction.

  1. Accept that your organisation has a potentially large pool of untapped Innovation talent. Simply recognising and openly exploring this will encourage ideas and open up opportunities to access this latent capacity. Swarm research has found that about 22 percent of large organsitions’ workforce has a high degree of innovation talent already. Why not tap this advantage?
  2. Recognise the skills that a project team needs to deliver Innovation results. Which skills might the team be lacking and who could you invite to fill the innovation skills gap and strengthen the team? The 8 skills defined by Swarm Vision is an excellent reference point and Swarm Vision’s Innovation Profiler is certainly worth exploring for identifying innovation talent and creating balanced and effective innovation teams.
  3. Train and develop innovation contributors. Since most companies are investing in innovation with a workforce that wasn’t hired for that purpose, training and development is critical and a segmented approach obviously makes sense. While employees may come from a different starting point as innovators, the 8 Swarm skills can indeed be developed, by 10-20% according to Suzan Briganti. For project teams, the emphasis should be on Innovation methodologies and tools (e.g. Blue Ocean Strategy, Design Thinking, Business Model Canvas, Lean Start-up, creativity techniques etc.). These structured and rigorous approaches encourage the team to diverge & explore and then converge on a way forwards towards execution. Specific programs should be designed for leaders and senior managers, to strengthen strategic innovation skills and mindsets and to mobilise these key stakeholders to create fertile conditions for innovation in their own areas. This can be enhanced by innovation orientation & awareness activities aimed at a broader population of employees. Here, the objective is to develop ‘innovation-receptive’ attitudes that will support the execution of innovation projects and improve the likelihood that they will deliver the desired results.
  4. Demonstrate that Innovation is a strategic priority for your organisation. Innovation is already a priority for many organisations. However, what is often lacking is senior leaders ‘walking the talk’ and demonstrating through their decisions and actions that Innovation, in its various forms, is indeed a key priority. Taking appropriate risks, encouraging experimentation, being curious, questioning and challenging the way things are currently done will send positive signals and help create the conditions for innovation. This could, of course, include a new approach to who should be included in a project team.

This does lay down a significant leadership and HR management challenge. It implies a different way to view, evaluate and deploy talent, using non-traditional mechanisms and metrics. But organisations must wake up to the fact that organisational innovation capabilities will play an increasingly significant role in their ability to create value and in their ultimate success. They must therefore assess whether their systems and processes, including recruitment, talent development, retention, performance management, project management etc., and of course culture are supportive or detrimental to this.

Building Future-Proof Organizations

StratX ExL has partnered and delivered transformational learning and development programs for Fortune 500 companies for many years. If you want to learn more on how we can support you and your teams to survive and thrive in the innovation age, download our latest white paper or reach out to one of our expert consultants today.

Future-Proofing Leaders White Paper

Topics: Innovation, Leadership Development, whitepaper

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