It’s follow my leader time for the world’s stock markets. Concerns over the state of the Chinese economy have seen markets plunge into freefall, only for some to bounce upwards again a few hours later. At the time of writing, markets are still in flux with analysts divided on the eventual outcome.

The impartial observer may wonder why the sudden panic, why when statistics and warning signs have pointed to areas of concern for a period of time the markets have suddenly moved from apparent inactivity to violent action. This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it confined to the world stock markets. In fact, the history of business could easily be written in terms of a giant game of follow my leader.

Open plan offices, lean methodologies, cross selling opportunities and hoping customers have a nice day; whatever the latest business plaything, it’s a fair bet that it will have bubbled under the surface for a short while before suddenly achieving critical mass as it is adopted by swathes of organisations. Now we’re not suggesting that some of these business traits are harmful to business. Far from it, but there is a danger that when business leaders simply follow the crowd they are not considering what is best for their own organisation.

This follow my leader mindset can lead to a scenario in which leaders bounce from one methodology to another, never taking the time to fully understand it or to properly integrate it into the business before the next wave of ideas hits the marketplace. So much so, that there was one period in the 80s and 90s in which it almost became a running joke that by the time the UK’s financial organisations started to adopt the ‘latest’ ideas from America, companies in The States had already moved on to the next big thing.

What’s right for you?

The fact is that like so much else in life different ideas work for different organisations. And whilst the principal may be sound and may be entirely appropriate at a headline level, it is how leaders shape the basic idea to work for their organisation that makes the difference between boosting business success and yet another change failure.

It may be a harsh lesson to learn, but whilst following the herd may give you the illusion of safety in numbers, it certainly won’t enable you to lead your organisation to a safe and secure future. Does that mean that leaders should ignore management theory and simply strike out on their own? Certainly not, but it does mean that leaders should take time to consider whether a particular theory has any relevance to their business sector and how it can be best applied to boost their own individual business performance. It’s all about context, alignment and relevance!

Innovation is not a one size fits all solution.

Take innovation for example. Survey after survey is indicating that business leaders believe that building a culture of innovation will help them to achieve an agile, collaborative and secure future.

But innovation is not a one size fits all solution. Every organisation will have their own individual starting point, their own level of innovation maturity; in fact many organisations will find that the level of innovation maturity will vary from department to department, business unit to business unit. In addition, every organisation will have their own optimal innovation mix; sitting somewhere on the scale between incremental and radical. You may think that your starting point is the same as that of another company, you may admire what another organisation has achieved through innovation, but slavish copying is only going to lead to disappointment and the ‘F’ word, failure.

Similarly, you can’t just create an innovative organisation by buying innovation in through merger or acquisition. The organisation that you acquire may be high on the innovation culture and maturity scale but unless your own business is geared up to deliver results through innovation, the culture clash between the two businesses will only result in discord. And whilst it is perfectly possible to operate one division of an organisation at a different level of innovation maturity to another, simply buying in the innovation element will send an entirely negative message to your existing employees.

The innovation roadmap

So if you can’t buy, and you can’t copy, what can you do to instil a game-changing culture of innovation within your organisation? The answer is to quite simply take time to understand the principles of building a culture of innovation and then follow a roadmap which will take you from your current level of innovation maturity towards a defined future. It’s not an instant solution, you can’t just click your fingers and go straight to the end of the process, but it is a solution which will enable your organisation to benefit from the latest management thinking without simply following the crowd.

One of the best ways to make sure that you are creating a solution which is right for your organisation, rather than simply a copy of someone else’s idea, is to take time at the outset to really understand where your business currently stands. This innovation cultural assessment should employ a mix of qualitative and quantitative assessments which are designed to enable the leadership to not only understand the current level of innovation maturity but also to gauge areas such as employee engagement. There is a chance that the innovation cultural assessment may well throw up areas of concern which need to be addressed before moving forward with instilling a culture of innovation, but if that is the case then unless these areas are addressed, the barriers to change may be insurmountable.

There is nothing new about carrying out a cultural assessment as the preview to defining a program for change; assessment should be the first step in any organisational cultural change but it is one, which is far too often skimped in the rush to make a change in pursuit of innovation. In all honesty though, if you do rush this initial investigation then everything you do subsequently is a total waste of time, money and effort, as you’ll never deliver the levels of innovation ROI your organisation is capable of.

Who cares if you’re not the first out of the blocks, what does it matter if when critical mass is achieved and the leadership lemmings are jumping off a cliff you are hanging back? What does matter for your business, for your employees, for your investors, and for your customers is that when you change the culture to one of innovation you are doing it in a measured, focused, targeted and strategic way which will achieve game-changing synergies for your organisation. Do you want to follow the crowd or create the marketplace? Do you want to shape the future? It’s up to you.

By Cris Beswick

About the author

Originally trained as a product & industrial designer, Cris Beswick spent over a decade as a successful entrepreneur & CEO building an award-winning design group. After structuring a full exit in 2008 he founded The Future Shapers, a boutique innovation consultancy specialising in working with CEOs and senior teams on the strategy, leadership and culture required for innovation. As such Cris has coached, advised and delivered keynotes to some of the worlds most successful companies on how to become exceptional by building game-changing innovation capability and embedding it into organisational culture.

Cris has also delivered executive education programmes on innovation for leading UK and international business schools such as Henley Business School, Cranfield University’s Centre for Competitive Creative Design and Synergy Business School in Dubai to name but a few.

Cris is the author of the book ‘The Road to Innovation’ and his next book ‘Building a Culture of Innovation’ will be published in late 2015. As well as authoring numerous white papers Cris has also contributed to articles for The Times, Financial Times and The Sunday Telegraph to name but a few.

Photo: Business people following their leader by