Can Innovation be Maintained?

For the last 2-3 months, every ounce of energy and creativity in my system seem to have been drained. Mentally and physically  I have been focused exclusively on selling our house, finding and closing on a new house and, currently, packing and coordinating logistics with contractors, movers, utilities etc.   I would sooner go to the dentist than have to think strategically and deliver ground-breaking innovations right now. Okay, you can say that it is justifiable to put some things on hold sometimes, as in the case of a crisis or unexpected situation. The danger is in translating this mentality into habitual practices and cultures; routinely perceiving operational necessities as urgent and routinely pushing everything that does not yield short-term, tactical results to the periphery.

Unfortunately, the state of restless urgency and mental exhaustion seem to be permanent conditions for many of the executives I have worked with or included in my research.  How can we maintain a state of intellectual alertness and innovation and quickly return to it when interrupted? An article in Forbes that promised answers caught my attention today: How Innovative Leaders Maintain Their Edge

The article is based on the research that was conducted to compile Forbes’ annual list of the world’s most innovative companies, and was driven by one key question:

 “Why are some companies able to create and sustain a high innovation premium while others don’t?” 

The research team concluded that what differentiates “the best in class from the next in class when it comes to keeping innovation alive and delivering an innovation premium year after year,” is what they call the 3P’s:  how well companies leverage people, process, and philosophies. Specific innovation building blocks include:

Leadership: The most important element in achieving and maintaining innovation is the ability of leaders to model it.  "What we do know as we wait is that if company leaders don’t “get” innovation by doing it themselves, the rest of the organization doesn’t stand a chance."

Constant curiosity, open-ended discovery and questioning the status quo: the authors found that it that it was five “discovery skills” that distinguished innovators from non-innovators.  “Innovators ask provocative questions that challenge the status quo.  They observe the world like anthropologists to detect new ways of doing things.  They network with people who don’t look or think like them to gain radically different perspectives. For example one CEO took a 5-year sabbatical to work for another firm. They experiment relentlessly to test new ideas and try out new experiences.  Finally, these behaviors trigger new associations which let them to connect the unconnected, thereby producing disruptive ideas.”

 Commitment and Investment: The most serious gap I found in my own research, detailed in my book, The Demand Perspective was the huge gap between talking the talk and actually walking the walk. Executives and staff are usually drowning in operational and tactical issues that are perceived as urgent priorities. Any elements of the so called “soft” side of their business—e.g. understanding and engaging with others; learning by doing, studying results and collaborating; innovation and long-term strategic thinking—are considered as “fluff,” no matter what the rhetoric. They are things they “will get around to” when there is time. How can we insert innovation and the human-based aspect of business in the midst of moving, preparing for a board meeting or planning an annual conference?

Somehow innovative leaders of successful companies find the time, as the article demonstrates: “innovative leaders spent approximately 31 percent of their time actively engaged in innovation-centered activities compared to only 15 percent by leaders of less innovative companies.  Doubling the time a senior leader personally invests in getting new ideas typically delivers significant returns.” For these types of leaders, innovation, continuous learning and mental alertness are the core business rather than the icing on the cake.

 People: Another research finding struck me as critically important and confirms my own experiences and observations. Organizational (and personal) innovation are not solitary endeavors. “Successful leaders,” the article asserts, “personally understand how innovation happens and they try to imprint their behaviors as processes and philosophies within their organization.”

The most important element in capability-building is developing and surrounding yourself with other innovations, for example:

Similarly, Jeff Bezos (Amazon, #3) surrounds himself with people at Amazon who are inventive.  He asks all job candidates: “’Tell me about something that you have invented.’  Their invention could be on a small scale – say, a new product feature or a process that improves the customer experience, or even a new way to load the dishwasher.  But I want to know that they will try new things.” 

The point is that leaders like Benioff and Bezos don’t just do innovation themselves, they systematically replicate their own innovation skills throughout their companies.

In other words, innovation is not simply a technique for generating new ideas or the hiring a few innovative people. To be sustainable it involves: leading by example; embedding innovation capabilities and cultures in your entire organization; focus, commitment and investment; leveraging people; building the “right processes for encouraging and supporting others as they try to “think different” like Steve Jobs did…”   

And you know what? Capability-building, discipline and commitment; turning your sense of priorities on its head; engaging with others and creating innovation support system works on the individual level as well.


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