Posted By: Bala & Debbie

A recent study by Forrester revealed 93% of Executives feel their company success is directly tied to Innovation. Yet only 18% believe their Innovation programs are working.

On the surface we may think, the companies could lack formal Innovation programs, designated R&D, Incubation, or Innovation teams. Maybe they are missing the framework and tools, or even blame it on shoestring budgets. Maybe the companies have been around for many decades and are set in their ways. But when you do a deep dive, we tend to find that the buck stops at none other than the Leaders themselves.

I use the term ‘Leaders’ in an inclusive way to encompass anyone who leads the talent. It can be a supervisor, a manager, a director, an executive, or a C-Level. Leaders of people are always in search of that edge that will separate their teams or organizations from the rest. However, the conduit for getting there begins with first laying the foundation for a culture of Innovation.

More often, Leaders look to influence innovation at from an organizational perspective, but equally, they should strive to inspire openness of thinking and ideas at a personal level. When it comes from within, it permeates outward onto those they lead. It’s more than mere words or dictates, but a sincerity exuded. It creates a vibe and a passion that can be contagious. It can be felt and absorbed by those he or she comes in contact with. It lives inherently in every conversation, gesture, facial expression, mandate. It is demonstrated in his or her openness, willingness to listen, encourage, enable and in cheering those on who take chances. It’s much harder to feel inspired toward creativity by the words we hear from our respected leaders, but by how they deliver the message, how they make us feel.

In this second article of the series, “Making Innovation Ordinary”, let’s explore and dialogue on how leaders can and should play a critical role in fortifying a culture of Innovation at all levels… We will divide it into two parts: Leaders’ own transformation on a personal level; and then their enablement and influence at an organization level.

Mastering Creativity and Innovation – The Personal Level

The most powerful force that propels people towards success is self-motivation. When you set goals based on your understanding of other people’s expectations, you tend to lose motivation and fall short. External motivation tends to lose steam quickly. On the other side, if you are passionate about doing something, there is every chance that you will try getting it to the finish line.
What techniques can help you find and nurture your own passion and keep your creative energies flowing?. Let’s explore.

Innovation is a Mindset

To be innovative, one only need to be curious. Curiosity is natural, and it’s free. We all come into this world with it. Albert Einstein in Old Man’s Advice to Youth alerted, “The important thing is not to stop questioning”. As children, we were born with an instinctive curiosity about the natural world and all cause and effect around us. Where do we diverge from this wonder and big-dreaming curiosity? Do we fear asking too many questions, or ridicule for wild, crazy ideas? Are we too tired or overburdened? You can see where I’m going with this. The cultural shift can be quite natural, like when your parents looked up and told you why the sky was blue… and smiled.

Curiosity revisits when we are encouraged to think in limitless what-ifs. After all, it’s only a what-if, leaving room for alternate possibilities. I am a big proponent of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People., however, the second habit taken too literally, ‘Begin with the end in mind’ may be where we diverge from natural curiosity?,. We should conveniently set that advice aside while dreaming big, instead embrace Steve Jobs mantra of “dots will connect down the road”. Pulling ourselves out of a comfort zone and taking a stand for something better, or discussing your dreams with others over coffee or a walk in the forest. Often it starts jokingly and then turns into something really cool. In other words: Innovation is a mindset… Why-not?, what-if?, how-come?

Change the scene!

As they say, Innovation stops when it is routine and you feel content. A great way to break the routine could be a “change of scene”. When I drive to work which is around 25 miles and takes 50 minutes each way, I take different routes every week. The first-day new route could be that you are curious, next day you may start noticing subtle changes from your prior path. The more and more you process the scenes and observe how people interact with the circumstances, you may be able to come up with fresh thoughts, ideas, and points of interest. I won’t say this magic happens all the time, but keep trying and you will be lucky to find your moment of ‘Eureka’. The key is that you should be hungry and observant.

Follow the Lead!

Another way to get my inspiration for the new ideas is to follow a few of the handpicked hashtags such as #360possibles, #innochat, #thissucks, #fml, etc. When you do so, you will be presented with many real-life problems that may trigger you to pursue a solution. Who knows, even some of these problems shared in social streams could lead you to the next big idea in your domain!

X for Y – Be Inspired!

This is an inspiration from Tom Peter’s concept of “creative swiping” that suggests taking another idea and applying it to a new domain, market or scene, and tweaking the execution to make it your own. So, attend as many Hackathons, Maker Faire, and Meet-Ups as possible, and listen to all the creative discussions that may inspire you to find your next big idea. Let us be clear, I am not suggesting you steal others’ ideas, it is more like X for Y.

Nah to Status Quo!

Another trick I taught myself is to challenge the status quo of whatever interesting things I see around me. It could be for instance, paying for my coffee at Starbucks point-of-sale or swiping my clipper card to get into a metro rail. Your thoughts may be meaningless or even be whacky, but build a discipline of vetting them before trashing them. If you extend this a bit further and apply it to any routines you do daily, things will be even more interesting and you can see the same things but with different perspectives.

It is Contagious!

Being innovative truly is contagious, and interacting consistently with aspiring innovators from Kickstarter, Y-Combinator, TechCrunch, etc. will allow you to develop the mindset and skills you need to become an amazing innovator. My reasoning for this is that when you are exposed to this type of environment, you will be stimulated to produce ideas and inspired to present them properly and articulately.

Actively listen

Mark Twain famously remarked, “If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear”. Instead, keep talking to share what we already know, why don’t we actively listen to others to learn new perspectives, problems, and solutions. When it comes to innovation, good ideas are a dime a dozen. So, creating innovation is not about just getting a bunch of ideas, but picking the right one and executing it the right way. Point is, keep listening with no filters, but apply filters when you look for what to encourage and go after.

Influencing creativity and innovation – The organizational level

Whilst most business leaders openly acknowledge that innovation is a critical driver of growth and the demand for it has never been so high, so constant and so ‘now’, many are still challenged by how to best lead and manage it. Coupled with the fact that many people don’t actually believe they are capable of it, leaders can face a big challenge in building innovation mindsets in their people and businesses. Let’s explore some easy tricks to break this stigma.

Innovation is for all, it is exciting and empowering

Innovation thrives when you enable your employees to be creative and collaborate across hierarchies and disciplines with balanced freedom of top-down objective and bottom-up innovation. Main constraint here would be to inspire and gravitate folks who are usually in the sidelines thinking Innovation is not their cup of tea. The key is to make it easy for everyone to share their challenges/ideas by giving them the confidence and comfort that they will be listened to and be enabled to get their ideas to life.

Innovation as a skillset can be coached, managed, and measured

Many Leaders follow the mantra of ‘What gets measured gets done’ to manage their innovation process. Yet, whether measurement supports or hinders innovation continues to be a topic of debate. It may be because they tend to measure just the activity of R&D and innovation ROI as opposed to the output and the impact of that output on performance. The natural progression of innovation impact would be to first create the excitement for your folks to love to join the journey instead you mandate them to join, convert that excitement to continuous engagement, then finally get into seeing and measure the effectiveness. Innovation transformation is a long-term haul, patience is key.

Outside in and inside out

Even the experienced leaders fall into the trap of seeing the world exclusively from their lenses but overlook to see the other way. For any company to thrive in Innovation, there should be a balanced strategy of collecting and processing outside in perspectives, e.g. talk to your customers to find out their pain points and how they really feel your products and services, then apply those learning when you deliver new experiences.

Enable, acknowledge and reward innovation

Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. It’s about the people you have, how they’re led and how much you get it. Instead of seeing innovation investment as a binary of 0 (expense) and 1 (revenue), you should view it as an investment to transform your talent and culture which will quickly lead you reaching your Innovation goals. Flip your priorities for the greater good.

Writing on the wall!

Another rational tip would be to post Apple’s Memoriam for Jobs to your wall. This will consistently remind you of the outlook you should have to be innovative. Want to try?

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignoring them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
Godspeed!