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Leading Innovation

Innovation - A hot-topic by Jeremy Suisted

Innovation is a hot-topic among business leaders today.  Over the past 5 years Jeremy Suisted, of Creativate has identified five key steps for leaders to take in leading innovation within their business.

Before COVID-19 hit, a survey of 800 business leaders in the UK revealed that over 70% viewed innovation as ‘critical to survival’ - yet less than 33% said they were innovating successfully.

That’s a powerful statistic - as these leaders were reporting that almost 40% of their organisations were going to fail due to a lack of innovation.

In 2020, the need for innovation for business survival is even more pronounced. Changing global politics, COVID-19 and disruptions to work-life are examples of the fast-moving, unpredictable world we are doing business in.

It is within this context that innovation becomes all the more important. Businesses that can regularly and rapidly identify new opportunities to deliver value, and change to adapt the circumstances - these are the businesses that will survive and thrive in the future.

So, how can business leaders guide their organisations to become more innovative? This question was the driving force behind a year-long research engagement I undertook in 2015, and has been the single focus behind my consultancy. Over the past five years, I have identified five key steps for leaders to take in leading innovation within their business.

1. Set the Challenge

Innovation thrives under constraints and focus. Successful leaders of innovation recognise the need for innovation to have a clear focusing challenge, and task their team with directing energy towards solving this.

A clear way for leaders to do this is to use the language of “How Might We…?” This simple question starter provides both focus and openness to a range of solutions.

For example, a mortgage brokerage might decide to focus their energy towards solving the challenge of “How Might We grow our market share of the first-home buyers by 30% per annum?”

This gives a direction and a clear challenge to where the business’ innovation efforts will be directed. However, it doesn’t pre-empt a solution. This will allow the team to explore a wide range of possibilities - ranging from new products, services, strategies, business models and resourcing.

An easy way to diagnose if your business has a clear challenge is to ask. Ask your employees - what is the innovation challenge we’re currently working on?

If they can’t answer you - or you get a wide range of answers - this is where you need to start.

2. Model the Behaviour

You’re probably aware of the behaviours required for innovation to occur. There’s a wealth of books and quotes - “Fail fast” “Celebrate failures” “Experiment” “Question the standard.”
These concepts are great - but there’s a wealth of difference between knowing the theory, and living the theory.

I’ve worked with a lot of organisations that claim they fail fast, and celebrate failures - but cannot provide me with one example of when they’ve done this.

This is a key leadership function - whatever behaviour you want to see your organisation practicing in three years time, you need to start practicing now.

Read that again if you missed it. You are the first-mover, the one who models what business- as-usual looks like in your organisation.

So, as a leader, take the lead. Put your hand up to lead an innovation project that might fail. Admit that you’re not sure of what the outcomes of this might be. Be the first person to ask questions, and note down a range of possibilities.

And give it a go! Lean into the uncertainty and try it out, being open that the project might not work.

3. Resource the Activity

Business leaders have a unique ability to offer innovation that many members of a team do not. They can allocate resources.

The key resources of time and capital are what unlock innovation, and communicate to your team the seriousness of the innovation challenge. When you show your team you are willing to invest in this project - with an expectation of return - it changes everything.

The resources do not need to be significant to start, but allocating a percentage of the total budget to new initiatives and discovery is a key first step. These resources should be measured throughout the year, and explained if they are under-utilised.

How can you use these? It can be in training and up-skilling your team in innovation, providing time for team-members to work on new initiatives, funding for development of prototypes and user-testing, or used to access expertise in commercialisation.

Don’t demand a million dollar return without being willing to invest thousands in the process. Resource the innovation activity, and expect this to be used.

4. Make It A Rhythm

Leaders have the opportunity to define the normal workplace rhythm in an organisation. Unfortunately, innovation is often seen as an event - an annual workshop, or a one-off idea gathering session.

To lead innovation within your business, you need to create a rhythm of innovation. How do you want your team to be practicing innovation each week? Each month? Each year?

This may only be a small part of their role - perhaps an hour or two a week, or a day a month. Regardless, if you do not plan this as part of their rhythm, it will not happen.

How often do you need to be thinking about what’s next, defining the challenge and leading an innovation journey? How quickly does your business need you to take an initial idea through to launch?

This is different from industry to industry, but the foundational principle behind this is clear - you need to plan a rhythm. Slow and steady always beats big and irregular.

Plan your rhythm, and book this in to your calendar.

5. Celebrate the Change

Great leaders know that what gets celebrated gets repeated. If you want innovation to be repeated and regular in your organisation, you must celebrate the small steps you see in the beginning

.One of the best ways to do this - is begin planning your company Innovation Award dinner a year in advance. Let your organisation know this is happening, what the awards will be and the criteria for entry.

Planning a celebration before you have anything to celebrate is a great prompt to action! Along the way, consider small acts to celebrate the behaviour you begin to see. Take a team out for coffee if they’ve conducted user-testing. Have a small-but-fun award for idea or question of the month.

When it comes to innovation - passion beats position. So when you see the passion, and begin to see the change - celebrate this, and continue to encourage this as part of your innovation rhythm.

These five small behaviours can have a significant impact on improving the innovation culture and performance of an organisation.If you’d like to learn more about how to run an innovation project in your business, or how your team can increase their innovation capability - get in touch with Jeremy Suisted at jeremy@creativate.co.nz