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Experience and research tell us five key success principles are seen across the cultures of ‘serial innovators.’ The good news: These characteristics can be adapted for any company, regardless of industry.

Do you suffer from “Innovation Envy”?

Innovation Envy, or “I.E.,” is a pervasive state of mental anguish found most often in executive leaders of large corporations. The condition is characterized by sleepless nights spent pining over your competition’s ability to get that elusive “creative jump,” as well as the nagging fear you will rise the next morning to find your own company has suddenly become irrelevant.

If you find yourself suffering from I.E., take comfort in knowing you are not alone. A recent Accenture study revealed that over 60 percent of executives surveyed describe themselves as “very concerned” about the pace of innovation within their companies.

Our own experience is that within nearly every C-level strategic meeting the I.E. topic surfaces early — specifically, executives want to know how they, too, can establish a more innovative culture so as to achieve greater top-line growth and increase talent retention.

This led us to seek to identify and codify the essential DNA of companies that consistently excel around innovation. We studied more than 60 organizations commonly thought to be vanguards within their fields, but only five emerged as “serial innovators.”

We observed the following characteristics among those five organizations.

1.Leadership empowers innovation

Setting “unachievable goals” forces people to fundamentally rethink their mental models for achieving objectives.

Senior leadership within these companies sets the tone for innovation activity. The leaders we studied often employ a common forcing mechanism: the articulation of objectives that are unachievable under the existing business model. (Think of President Kennedy saying that within 10 years the United States should land a man on the moon and bring him home.) Setting “unachievable goals” forces people to fundamentally rethink their mental models for achieving objectives.

Risk taking is endorsed as a desired behavior. “Fast failure” in ideation and experimentation is considered a positive event, as it eliminates possible solutions from contention.

Finally, leaders of these companies insist decisions be fact based and data driven, as opposed to hinging on anecdotal evidence or the opinion of the most senior person in the room.

2. Interest networks are leveraged

If social networks are about whom you are interested in, interest networks are about what you are interested in. Our serial innovators actively cultivate small, empowered, self-directed interest networks within their organizations, with the mentality being, “One person can make an innovation difference.”

These interest networks have end-to-end accountability for the implementation of ideas, thus preventing a project from withering on the vine. These teams are almost always guided by frugality, as self-imposed constraints often lead to creativity that trumps an organization’s “gravitational pull” toward installing controls and protecting turf. These teams also use enabling of a number of technology platforms  that can underpin the collaboration process – but they recognize that having a platform is not enough by itself.

3. Ideation and development occur as close to the customer as possible

Leading innovators realize winning ideas can come from unconventional places, be they employees from outside the typical innovation group, or even customers themselves. These companies maximize crowd-sourcing internally and externally.

They also take full advantage of customers’ “data exhaust.” This means they make use of information that is a byproduct of customer interactions, feeling a great deal can be learned through observing how a customer uses a product or service. Through customer feedback loops, development iterations are more closely aligned to increase user adoption.

4. Rewards and measurement systems are aligned

Top innovators have an underlying spirit of meritocracy, as they reward individuals based on creativity and achievement.

The old adage “what gets measured gets done” is especially relevant to establishing an innovative culture. But leading innovators look past traditional metrics like ROI and R&D spend, and focus instead on tracking end-user adoption. This focuses teams on what they can immediately control: building new products and services that customers actually want, in which case ROI will naturally follow.

5. Underpin creativity with a structured process

A common characteristic of executives suffering from IE is that they view innovation as the result of luck, serendipity or black magic. In contrast, serial innovators think of it as a business process akin to finance, engineering or accounting — and they manage it as seriously as they would any these disciplines.

…serial innovators think of it as a business process akin to finance, engineering or accounting — and they manage it as seriously as they would any these disciplines.

That being said, these companies only utilize structured processes where they add value as a counterbalance to chaos. The speed with which a company innovates is a key differentiator, and excessive bureaucracy impedes quick, hypothesis-driven decision-making.

Superior cultures of innovation are not created through flavor-of-the-month initiatives or transformation programs. Quite the contrary, serial innovation is the result of executing on all five of these points. Executives can learn from these characteristics, and develop customized plans based on their own cultures.

In future articles, we plan to delve further into what it actually takes to execute around each of these five points. For today, your takeaway should be that the cure for Innovation Envy is at hand.

The question we leave with you:  Given that serial innovators share the five characteristics described above, on how many of the five would you say your company executes?

By Shubber Ali & Nathan Bull

 About the authors

Shubber Ali leads the Innovation and Product Development practice in the Silicon Valley for the Operations Management Consulting group at Accenture, a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company.

Nathan Bull is a Senior Executive in Accenture’s Operations Consulting practice, working with clients across both public and private sectors to help them establish repeatable processes for innovation.