The first step to leading innovation

Let’s just take a moment to reconsider the meaning of innovation. Suppose we took innovation in business to mean profound, system-wide change to the way things are done. We might be reinventing air travel, or building a totally new way for people to access the internet (requiring more than simply the design of a slick new tablet), so, let’s say innovation means far-reaching change.

It’s easy just to say that we need to innovate, but what is most important is that the need for such profound change is recognised. It takes insightful leadership to spot these opportunities and will usually require team effort to respond to them. It’s often easier to see when we’re floundering than it is to put things right – the intended change that didn’t work – perhaps a new coach for the football team or a new leader for a political party. These partial improvements are always made with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, lasting improvement will not come along without radical innovation across the whole system. So we’ll usually have to lose a few more premiership titles or general elections before the necessary innovations are implemented.

As leaders, therefore, it’s helpful first to acknowledge that we need to innovate.

That’s not the same as knowing the answers; it’s enough just to realise that innovation is necessary. A few questions that we have found helpful to get us going are:

  • Which parts of my business are unquestionably working well, by any standards?
  • What else should we be capable of right now?
  • What has changed externally in the fundamentals of my business that is holding us back?
  • What internal structures (in the sense of rules, systems etc.) might be contributing?
  • What are the key things outside of my control? Who does have control over these things?
  • What have I already done to create improvements?
  • What are the potential rewards, in all forms, of achieving real innovation?
  • If I don’t do this, who will? How surprised might I be if they manage it?

Having been involved in many projects to secure innovation in business, the striking observation to me is the contrast between the real hard work of the teams toiling on these projects AND the elegant simplicity of the eventual outcomes. The sheer effort and dedication people put into this work when asked by their leaders to devote time to it is remarkable – it’s almost as though they were sitting there waiting to be asked. Indeed, many of them turn up with part of the answer, though nobody has it all. And this observation reinforces the reality that no single leader could be expected to come up with the results single-handed.

The leaders role, then, is merely to spot the need and unleash the team that knows what’s necessary. The expertise to find real innovation almost always exists in the organisation – the key is to be able to unleash it constructively.

I’m keen to hear from those leaders who just have some idea that things could be different around here. Innovation can then be brought alive; it might be hard work but the rewards are real. And the idea that innovation is something only achieved by extraordinary individuals can be dispelled.

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