Innovation Demystified, The Innovation Leadership Challenge

What exactly is innovation? Is it about creating a new product or simply being creative? Is innovation itself something that we can create within our businesses and if so how? Do we even understand the impact that innovation can have within an organisation? Let’s face it there are thousands of books out there on business and innovation and yet when we asked senior corporate leaders to define innovation everyone gave completely different answers.

“Innovation is not a thing someone can build. But it is an outcome, an end result of doing some really cool stuff within an organisation.” Cris Beswick.

Cris Beswick is an innovation strategist and co-author of the bestselling book ‘Building a Culture of Innovation’. Over the past fourteen years Cris has been working closely with CEOs and senior corporate leaders, helping them to build innovation strategies and embed innovation culture within their organisations. Techsauce Global journalist Vanessa Techapichetvanich recently interviewed Cris about his approach to working with senior leaders, key innovation metrics, and most importantly the factors which hinder innovation success.

What is the biggest challenge of corporate innovation? How is it different between the US/European market and the Asian market?

Whilst there are socio-cultural differences across the world, globally the fundamental challenge in driving innovation is the lack of innovation leadership capability. That’s not for the want of trying. Individuals who have set out to be good leaders have most likely been to a business school or taken advantage of any number of leadership development courses which are available worldwide. The challenge is that many of these courses are retroactive, helping people to be good leaders of an ecosystem that existed ten or twenty years ago.

That ecosystem was far more linear and predictable than the world we live in today. We are now in the Fourth Industrial Revolution and that demands a huge amount of creativity and adaptability. So what we wanted from leaders in the past and what many leaders have trained for just doesn’t fit today’s requirements; leaving leaders without the right skills, ability, behaviour or mindset to lead innovation centred organisations.

With that in mind, our focus on working with senior leadership teams is to help them to understand:

  1. How to build innovation strategies and then specifically align those strategies to the organisation.
  2. How to lead for innovation, developing a leadership style and capabilities that will deliver innovation.
  3. How to scale innovation capability and build an innovation culture.

When it comes to looking at specific differences between areas of the globe you have to take into account a number of variables including technology maturity and social expectations. In addition, the more hierarchical an organisation, the more difficult it is to cultivate a culture of innovation which values collaboration and inclusivity.

What are some common mistakes that leaders make when it comes to understanding innovation?

You can’t build a culture of innovation or see it as some sort of add-on to an existing structure. Innovation is not a thing, but it is an outcome/end result of lots of cool stuff which is done inside an organisation. Essentially what we are trying to help leaders to do is find problems and opportunities; find out what customers want next, what they need, and what they are struggling with. Then through creativity, design, empathy, lean, agile, and all the other tools we have at our disposal we try to solve those problems.

It sounds simple and let’s face it there are thousands of books about innovation or design thinking, or any of the other separate tools available in the market. CEOs and leaders know this, just as they know that they don’t need another book to convince them they need innovation; they know they do, but they don’t know where to start.

The big challenge is therefore how to transform the organisation in order to deliver innovative solutions. Fundamentally the solution comes down to leadership; engaging our people in collaboratively driving innovation, transforming the culture and instilling innovation into every action and decision on a daily basis.

What are some first step actions a corporate should take in order to be more innovative?

Before taking any action I would suggest organisations undertake an innovation maturity assessment in order to clearly understand where they are in terms of innovation. Globally around 78% of senior leaders think that they already have the right culture in place for creativity, experimentation and innovation. Just 37% of employees agree!

This is just one of a number of statistics which demonstrate the gulf between executive innovation perception and the reality of how ready an organisation is for innovation. The leadership challenge is to close that gap. A bit like GPS; without knowing where your starting point is, it is impossible to plot a realistic route towards your destination. In other words, you need to know exactly where you are today in order to get to be where you want to be tomorrow.

Could you briefly tell us more about the six stage framework that is the basis for your latest book?

The framework as set out is a simple roadmap for senior leaders to follow. In essence we have set out to help leaders to move away from the theoretical and into the actual, breaking down how to build innovation capability into six core components:

  • Kick off with why: we start off by helping organisations understand where they are today, where they want to get to, and then begin the process of building a picture of what the journey is going to look like. This sets the scene for the following stages.
  • Assemble the right team: this is about building an innovation leadership team, a group of people who are passionate about driving the organisation forward through innovation.
  • Agree the future: it’s now time to align the senior team and innovation champions around a future vision. This stage is about designing how the organisation will look, feel and operate on a daily basis. We also talk about how we build a framework for innovation team actions, whether that be design thinking or task allocation.
  • Engage in conversation: it is only at this point that the organisation is ready to innovate. By now we have got the strategy right, the leadership team ready, and all the tools and frameworks in place. Most transformation programs around innovation fail because they jump to this stage without putting the right frameworks in place.
  • Create a roadmap: many organisations overlook the importance of including HR and their people on the innovation journey. Bringing the roadmap alive means taking it to your people and HR play a key role in this.
  • Make it happen: this last component is about embedding the culture of innovation over time and making it stick, almost like the lean approach to building innovation capability. This section is also about how innovation is measured and the importance of looking to continually adapt the innovation strategy as the organisation’s level of innovation maturity improves.

How do you measure success for innovation?

This is where organisations can really fall down. Of course organisations are going to measure value in terms of growth, a new product created, revenue growth and profitability; but we can’t just lump all the things organisations are already doing into the innovation pot.

Let me give you an example. An organisation is turning over $5 billion at the moment and over the next 2 to 3 years expects to grow to $6 billion. But the aspiration is to be a $10 billion organisation by deploying innovation. That innovation growth gap of $4 billion should be identified and measured separately from core existing growth if we are to start to measure innovation more accurately.

But beware, we don’t want to silo innovation. Traditionally, innovation has been synonymous with new product creation and R&D. But, innovation is not just about product and organisations need to measure the much wider range of areas that innovation can drive. For example, one innovation challenge which organisations are facing now and will face even more in the next five years is the war for talent.

That looks to not only retaining great talent but also attracting a new generation to further the innovation drive. This then produces a different key metric to pure product innovation. For HR directors, innovation should be seen as a catalyst for building an organisation that people want to work for. Your metric is not going to be revenue growth or how many patents have been taken out; but rather, employee engagement scores and staff turnover rates.

In order for the HR department to meet this challenge the organisation has to be purpose driven with strong values of empathy, collaboration, creativity and experimentation.

What is the most important quality of an innovative leader?

For me, the fundamental leadership quality is empathy. Leaders seek to build customer understanding but sometimes neglect the importance of developing a true understanding of their own people. Using innovation as the core driver, leaders should deploy empathy to understand the values and motivators of their people before building on that understanding to develop a culture that yields innovation. Because of that, empathy is one of the areas which we spend a considerable amount of time on as we work with senior leaders. If you want to get a flavour of how empathy can transform attitudes, the TV series “Undercover Boss” is a perfect starting place.