There would be few organisations that did not cite innovation as a desirable quality in their workforce, whether as part of the whole organisational culture, or critical in one area. Over the past five years, with businesses being buffeted by economic storms, finding sources of innovation can be the difference between success and failure.

Often, in fact, the catalyst for innovation can be tough times, when organisations have to find very different ways of operating. Perhaps, one day, organisations will look back on this particular environment with gratitude. The mother of invention is, after all, necessity.

But creating a culture of innovation, where people feel empowered to find better ways of doing things, is not an easy challenge. The way an organisation has operated for years, often very successfully, can make it difficult to get an idea off the ground. The result is frustration for employees and missed opportunities for the business. However there are a range of steps a business can take to put innovation at the heart of its strategy. The starting place is more often than not leadership.

Innovation, invention and creativity: What’s the difference?

Innovation is not a solo act

The terms ‘innovation’, ‘invention’ and ‘creativity’ are often used interchangeably. But they are not synonymous and the distinctions between them are important. Innovation is the process of bringing new solutions to market that drive differentiation and measurable business value. Business strategies, processes and solutions that are applied internally can also be targets for innovation. Innovation is not a solo act. It’s a unique social phenomenon that requires the contributions of multiple collaborators who play critical roles to get things done.

Invention, on the other hand, can reflect the work of a single individual and is typically the result of research and experimentation. An invention may or may not have measurable business value.

Creativity is best viewed as an individual personality attribute. An individual may be creative in that they are able to generate many unique ideas (or build upon others’ ideas in value-added ways). Creativity fuels invention. But an individual who is creative may lack the skills, discipline and ability needed to bring and idea to fruition and grow it into meaningful innovation.

“But I’m not creative”

A trap many people fall into is believing that they must be creative in order to be innovative. This is not the case. Leaders do not have to be creative to lead an innovative team, and innovative behaviours can be learned and developed. Leaders are an embodiment of their organisation and its ways of thinking, believing and doing.

They can create a culture of continuous innovation or, with surprising ease, strangle innovation before it has begun.

Leaders can create or strangle a culture of continuous innovation

In research conducted by DDI we found that many leaders were not actively engaged or personally interested in driving innovation. While they demonstrated “passive behaviours” encouraging innovation, such as being open to unique ideas (78 per cent) and challenging employees to engage with customers (77 per cent), they scored much lower when it came to “active behaviours” such as sponsoring idea generation sessions (59 per cent) and encouraging employees to spend less time problem solving and more time understanding stakeholder views (41 per cent). Teams look to what the leader does more than what they say.

In fact the research also found significant differences in the innovation behaviours leaders believe they exhibit to their employees compared with what the employees think they did. Roughly three quarters of the 513 leaders we surveyed thought they did well at demonstrating the behaviours that drive innovation. But when we asked the 514 employees for their views, only about half believed that driving innovation was something their leaders did well. There’s a consistent disconnect between what leaders think they are doing to address these challenges and how team members are perceiving leaders’ actions. So what can leaders do about this?

Four steps to embedding innovation

  1. Those at the top set the tone

Senior management support is essential for almost every programme to work. However, as we shall explore later, innovation cannot simply be seen as an initiative. It must be prioritised by senior leaders as a major business objective so that it systematically permeates the culture. Leaders need to show that they are willing to take calculated risks and foster a culture of openness and experimentation. They also must ensure that processes are in place that will turn a good idea into something that helps the company’s bottom line.

  1. Choose the right leaders

While you’d never want a senior team made up completely of risk takers, neither would you want everyone to be risk averse. This would lead to a culture greatly lacking in innovation. A robust and scientifically proven profile for leaders who are likely to foster innovation should be embedded into selection and promotion systems. That way the organisation can ensure that the right mix of people are at the helm of the business.

  1. Grow your own innovation leaders

Instead of looking at innovation as something which is either present or not, start looking it as a process and discipline that can be established to become the de-facto way of operating. It can be developed in employees and established in the company culture. There are specific techniques that can help both leaders and employees think more creatively, connect with stakeholders, evaluate new ideas and drive ideas to tangible innovations. Leaders can learn how to drive innovation in their teams, while accepting that they themselves don’t have to be the people to come up with the ideas themselves. These skills can be included in development plans and tracked via performance management so that leaders and teams have specific targets to work towards.

  1. Innovation is a process, not just a great idea

Procter & Gamble has become well known for innovation after they improved their innovation success rates. But this was not just due to them coming up with new ideas; they also created a clear business process for bringing the right new ideas to market. Thomas Edison said: ‘Genius is one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.’ Substitute the word ‘innovation’ for the word ‘genius’ and it gives a good idea of how important process is to successful and repeatable innovation.

An organisational persona

While innovations can run the gamut from disruptive to incremental, the one thing innovation should never be seen as a single initiative if it is to become part of the organisational culture. While work on an innovation is often carried out by a team executing work on a project, innovation itself shouldn’t be thought of and approached as an initiative any more than, for example, talent management. Rather, it should be an organisational persona, demonstrated day in and day out by the behaviour of both leaders and employees. This requires organisational commitment, discipline, systems and on-going action every day.

The innovation paradox

Leaders must juggle many different priorities daily, both short and long term. They must focus on meeting short-term sales and financial goals, staying ahead of the competition, growing the talent the organisation needs for the future, keeping projects on target, all while keeping an eye on the organisation’s long-term strategy. Innovation falls into the long-term category. It is a future-focused strategy that should, but often doesn’t, exist on an even plane of importance with other critical demands. In fact, the raft of conflicting priorities and the perpetual impatience of investors and other key stakeholders often seems to get in the way of innovation.

Innovation should never be seen as a single initiative

What makes innovation especially challenging is that the decisions made and the actions taken to instil and sustain it can have a large-scale impact on the organisation. Having to focus on both long-term and short-term goals, keeping the company profitable now while driving the right innovation strategy for the future, is what we refer to as the innovation paradox. Leaders must make a conscious effort to balance their short, medium and long-term focus.

Go forth and innovate

The skills to accelerate innovation can be learned

Innovation doesn’t happen by itself. It takes commitment and a clear understanding in every leader to understand his or her role in creating a culture which will help innovation thrive. But the good thing is that, as a leader, the skills to accelerate innovation can be learned.

By understanding the behaviours that encourage innovation and ensuring they balance the day-to-day results with future environment, leaders can play their role in their organisation’s success.

By Simon Mitchell

About the Author

Simon Mitchell is General Manager for the UK operation and European Marketing Director, responsible for developing and executing DDI’s European marketing strategy.
He is a prime commentator in the European business and HR media and leads research projects across Europe to understand talent management trends and practices. He is the author of several DDI research reports and whitepapers.

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