By Liz Thompson
Everyone likes to consider themselves innovators, or at least believe that innovation is happening in their domain. But innovation management is a process that requires leaders to commit deeply and believe that the risk is worth the reward.
For many business leaders, regardless of the industry, it can be a struggle to embrace creativity and innovation and to commit the needed resources of time, funding and staff to develop new methods of doing business. For many, it is a conflict to invest when there is not a clear, immediate or guaranteed financial return on investment. When it comes to innovation, the biggest return on investment can be the learnings and the mindset shift, not just the financial gains.
Leaders need to ask themselves a couple of questions: “Do I want to be an innovator or a follower?” There is no right answer as both leaders and followers are needed. But one thing to keep in mind is that innovation without failure is impossible. Thus, the next question emerges: “Which do I value more, taking reasonable risks and learning or being a mainstream adopter?” And again, there is no right answer.
Seth Godin, author and former dot-com executive, once said, “No organization ever created an innovation. People innovate, not companies.” With that in mind, for those who genuinely want to be leaders of innovation, there are certain “must-haves” for any process. The most important “must-haves” are remembering that internal culture impacts success and support from the top down is absolutely integral.
1) Real innovation moves the organization forward strategically. Designate ownership and accountability to measure progress. These measurements will often look quite different from other success metrics, are often more opaque and are even not immediately financial. These non-financial metrics sometimes make team members feel uncomfortable, and that is okay. Ultimately everyone involved in this process needs to be willing to hear truth and be committed to creating a culture that drives creativity.
2) Innovation has a clear alignment with organizational business strategy. Leadership and designated team members need defined problems to solve that align with the stated business strategies. There is no point innovating a widget or process that does not move the organization forward.
3) Innovation requires a defined process and funding. Leadership should begin by carving out one full year of budget solely dedicated to innovation and trying new things. These dedicated resources include funding, full-time employees, and support from a consultant, such as EPIcenter, to challenge leaders and drive the process. There must be buy-in by the team members with leaders committed to ongoing sightlines of the process.
4) The right team members need to be at the table to make decisions, evaluate innovations and de-risk both the technology and the business models to make things happen. The team should include individuals who are adaptive and tenured, new and nimble, and a mix of subject matter expertise and enthusiasm.
5) Innovation success requires the right mindset.
A. Both the leadership and innovation team must have a mantra of “how can we” rather than “we can’t” or “we’ve never done it that way before” or “it failed before.” There must be a will and desire to work, innovate, fail, resolve, and execute – or at least learn.
B. Sometimes innovative solutions emerge by happenstance during the process without a known or stated problem. With proper training and a curious mindset anything is possible.
With these requirements in mind, let’s go back to the initial questions asked of business leaders, but in reverse order this time:
“What do you value more, taking reasonable risks and learning while meeting strategic goals or pure financial gain?”
“Are you okay with failure, adjustments and trying again?”
“Are you an innovator or a follower?”
Again, there is no right or wrong answer. Just know which you are. Otherwise, you are getting in the way.
Liz Thompson serves as the chief of advisory services at EPIcenter. The nonprofit organization propels energy innovation and thought for our global future with a think tank, incubator and accelerator, strategic partnerships, advisory engagement and critical conversations about energy. EPIcenter is focused on ways to make the production and consumption of energy smarter, cleaner, more resilient and more efficient. EPIcenter’s advisory services syncs innovation goals and aspirations with everyday realities.