7 Things a Business Leader can do to Support Innovation
Nick Francis Managing Director, Consulting

What is the most important thing a business leader can do to support innovation?


The Backdrop

Technology as an academic discipline is comparatively young when compared to topics like maths, literature or psychology all of which have built up tens if not hundreds of years of data and studies focused on the history of the topic and the learnings from them.

Technological advancement does not yet have this rich history of learnings based on what has worked and what doesn’t, so on first look, you would be forgiven for thinking that it is somewhat inefficient, which I am sure in 50 years time when we look back it will have been the case. Some believe that this helps the speed of advancement and differentiation because with no go-to sources to refer to we try the same things many times and are persistent enough to find a different way to do something or eventually prevail to some degree finding a better version of what was achieved before.

In August 2011 Marc Andreessen published the essay titled “Why Software Is Eating The World” in “The Wall Street Journal”. After discussing the importance of software he stated his thesis that in short, software is eating the world. This remains to be true today in 2019, when building cloud-based software or software as a service (SaaS) solutions one can expect tens of competitors in the first 12 months of being on the market whereas you would be unlucky if there were a couple to compete with as little as 10 years ago. Make no mistake that 8 years on from Andressen’s quote we are still in a software-driven arms race that shows little sign of dissipating or letting up.

What does this have to do with Innovation

Technological advancement is bleeding into every business and every sector where many organisations want to increase their ability to differentiate themselves. So what is Innovation and what outcome are we ideally after. In order to compete and differentiate today’s organisations want to increase their ability to compete through being more agile and innovative. Some companies now have innovation labs or partnerships where they are expecting the next generation of big ideas to come from but what is at the heart of these initiatives? Sometimes it’s nothing more than a few people playing with new tech that over time becomes more of a marketing exercise for the company to be able to state that they are investing in innovation. In other cases, some find that what they do discover or build struggles to make it back into the central operations of the organisation or in other cases reach its full potential reaching critical mass.

The aim of most innovation inside a corporate is for the technology to be as tightly coupled to the process it is designed to optimise and help strengthen it. The process, in turn, should relate back to the services and or function it is designed to provide and support the desired outcomes. The service or function provided drives with the need for the skill set required and role of the person/s operating it, which over time needs to become more and more unburdened by menial tasks the higher the degree of automation. In summary, the more tightly coupled, harmonious and optimised you can get this flow the better the individuals, team, department and ultimately the organisation will perform and the more the customer will gravitate towards it.

Ok, so I get it but what can I do to maximise the chances of success

The following recommendations are some of the prerequisites and foundational principles that you might want to consider when starting to build an innovative team or organisation;

  1. Smart passionate people from different backgrounds – A lot can be achieved with smart people but when you add in a passion that can be applied to the subject matter being focused on magical things are possible and more likely to occur. Ensure that these people and groups are multi-disciplined and have enough skill to get what they are aiming to complete without outside help this means a blend of sales, marketing, business and tech type skills are needed to be present. This is by far the best and effective foundational element I can recommend.
  2. Dedicated time to focus – The team must be designed around creation and innovation, this can be a matrix managed team of people that already have full-time operational roles. Those that have strategic roles can have their existing approach optimised into a more innovative format. But the point remains the same don’t expect a great amount of progress from a team doing multiple roles, they will not gel nor get the creative flow going with the continual disruption from their day jobs.
  3. Being connected with the right people –  Access to customers, subject matter experts, competitors and colleagues that manage and work with the target process or a version of it today are an absolute necessity. Work hard to ensure that the team is connected at an individual and organisational level with as many groups as possible that represent the business in question and the challenges that it faces. Take time to document and map user journeys from every aspect of the existing process looking for opportunities for optimisation.
  4. Empowerment and accountability – Only by empowering those responsible for driving innovation enabling them to access every part of the existing business allowing them access to all the current technology, process and the people involved, as indicated in part 3, will the team be able to identify and maximise the opportunity for improvement and ability to create value.
  5. Ability to fail with no fear of consequence – expect and encourage failure as a good way to learn. A team that has a fear of failing instilled into them by their peers or superiors will not exhibit many of the culture must-haves in today’s modern organisations such a high degree of collaboration, complete transparency and open communication. Instead, encourage failure to learn but encourage that it is done fast. Fail fast is about defining the absolute minimum required to prove there is what startups refer to a ‘Product Market Fit’ eg the buyer of the user need it and recognise that fact.
  6. Access to data and assets – as touched upon in a number of the above points it is a fundamental part of innovations to be able to fail fast and learn iteratively as the creation takes place which can only happen with feedback loops built into the process and technology. This can only be achieved by having access to the relative data points that can be tracked as required. Without this, your team will be essentially flying blind at worst and at best relying on feedback and opinion from 3rd parties which is ok at a small scale but not beyond.
  7. The increased flow of information and feedback delivered as near to the source as possible – Make sure all data, insight and reporting flow directly back to the point at where the design and development are taking place. Do not provide management information and reporting focused solely for executives to oversee and govern the process as the requirements for what to report on will be different. If specific oversight and governance are required, build this into the daily processes of the team plugging in the interested parties as required. It’s becoming accepted more and more that the well-formatted Gantt chart, milestone tracking and complex reporting approach are not what drives successful projects.

Stay the course, being patient and consistent will pay off

Very rarely is anything an overnight success and even those things that appear to be one 999 times out of a thousand aren’t either. Look at most things you perceive to be an overnight success and you will see a lot of hard work by the person in question and a long tail of previous versions or attempts that ended in failure before anything became popular.

In this day and age innovation typically doesn’t create anything new they are just better versions of what existed before them. Web search existed before Google and people were couch-surfing before Airbnb came along. Apple that many see as an innovative tech giant or at least historically are famous for taking existing ideas (wireless networks, media creation, mice, mp3 players, smartphones) and doing them really, really well. To support this even their (Apple) own design lead Jonathan Ive said, “It’s very easy to be different, but very difficult to be better.”

And finally

It’s highly unlikely that any of us are going to be the next Steve Jobs or Elon Musk with regards to innovation made even less likely given the fact that I am writing this and you are reading it, something that most natural innovators would probably not spend their valuable time doing. Innovation is so deeply ingrained in that archetype of a person you tend to find that they don’t intend to innovate, it is just a by-product of providing a solution to the challenges they see in the world that are there to be addressed. However, for 99.9999% of us, there are a lot of opportunities out there to help us innovate if we can create the right working environment and have the right inputs around you to do so……best of luck!

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