Leading for innovation

In tough consumer markets, management teams often look to innovation to plug gaps in their plan and grow the top line in new and different ways, never more so as economic downturn threatens. Yet the promises and hype of innovation soon mean that myths & questionable practice can be confused with innovation reality. It’s all too easy to lose sight of the hard yards needed and the challenges to be overcome in the warm, coddling, glow of promises of ‘easy’ business success.

There are no quick fixes, no “hacks”, that guarantee success from innovation. Innovation is betting. You make your bet, you hope your number comes up. On balance, failure is more likely than success…but innovation success isn’t just luck either.  You can influence the odds in your favour.

And the place to start is with leadership.

Leaders play a crucial role putting the preconditions in place that make innovation success more likely. Working across different challenges, we’ve identified 5 innovation leadership success factors:

Words and Behaviours
The desire to innovate has to be more than a grand gesture or a noble wish. It has to be more than one person’s passion, even if that person is the CEO. And it definitely has to be more than words, even if those words are spoken with heart-felt belief. Purpose, strategy, structure, working practices, behaviours, targets… all have to add up, incrementally, to make launching great ideas more inevitable.

  • Invest time on putting solid foundations in place before you leap into resourcing up or creating ideas. Take the time to get everyone, properly, truly aligned and bought-in. This will not happen overnight, and it certainly won’t happen by e-mail the day after a leadership away day.
  • Create a purpose for innovation that flows from the company purpose. In fact, it will be a cornerstone in delivering it. An innovation purpose acts both as a guiding star and guard rails. It should motivate and keep you honest and on track.
  • Be clear on innovation strategy. What do you aim to be, for whom, by when? What are the handful of enablers that can propel you forward or blockers that will hold you back? Address them relentlessly.
  • Structure for innovation. Set aside investment. Set aside time. Set aside people, being clear on what they must deliver versus the responsibilities of everyone else. Recognise that how you measure and incentivise their success may be different to others, as innovation will always have a longer-term focus.
  • Think about working practices; innovators need the space to be creative but the urgency of knowing they must deliver at pace.
  • Be clear on how behaviours will need to differ to allow innovation to flourish versus that of your other marketing teams.

Failure: the fuel of success
Innovation is rarely smooth. There will be bumps in the road and commitment to the cause will wobble. At the moment when a new product or service fails, or when you pull the plug, the whole strategy is put under the microscope. Doubters surface and get vocal. The whispering begins. Quash it. Immediately.

Recognise that failures are the fuel of success. Failures can lead to profound learnings about how to make something a success. This is when your leadership and your strategic alignment to innovation will be tested most – and in many respects it’s the real test of the innovation leadership mettle of the business.

Nothing to something is more than ideas
Of course innovation is about coming up with great ideas. But, thinking about the whole journey from nothing to something, ideas are really just a small part of it. Beanbags and chocolates play a role but are a small part of it. Brainstorms are part of it, but just a small part.

The whole journey is about understanding where to innovate (and why), who for (and why), what (and why), and the how… turning something from an interesting thought, some well-chosen words and beautiful sketch into a prototype and ultimately about committing resources into making that thing happen. Innovation is more than grand gestures. Committing resources isn’t just a creating a new role and allocating some loose change to bring things to life – it could be a new packaging line – and they don’t come cheap and they don’t come without absolute commitment to the cause.

Rhythm and routine
In innovation, increasing your chances of success means establishing a rhythm and routine in creating new concepts. If you lose a bet you have another chip to place. If your big bet doesn’t pay off today, you have another for tomorrow and the day after. Success in innovation comes through quality and quantity. Success comes through having ideas, concepts and prototypes all along the innovation journey. Getting the business into a rhythm and routine creates confidence. Spotting insights, creating ideas, developing concepts, validating with consumers, launching, learning and going-again. And again. Accruing learning. Building competence. Building some swagger.

Process and chaos; loose and tight
Innovation needs process but not to be strangled by it. It needs discipline, but the space to break some rules. It needs fag-packet calculations and 5-year NPVs. It’s the constant tension between process and chaos that allows innovation to thrive. Too much process and you will stifle creativity and execution. Too much chaos and you risk throwing darts at a dartboard backhand whilst facing the wrong way. You may hit the bullseye, but the chances are slim and you won’t know how to repeat it. It’s the recognition that innovation is a dance between looseness and tightness that makes the chances of success more likely. Innovation needs flexible guidance, not dogmatic rules.

All this, and not one idea created yet. That’s innovation for you. The success is in the hard-yards that few people give you credit for. It’s in the foundations for the house that are never seen. But without them, the glorious palace comes tumbling down. Innovation leadership, strategy and culture. Without them, the odds are against you.


David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.  david@thecrowflies.co.uk; +44 (0) 1283 295100; www.thecrowflies.co.uk; @crowflieshigh

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