Innovation seems to be a tired buzzword in Singapore yet many organisations are still in the infancy stage when it comes to this. New startups excepted, companies normally have a difficult time when it comes to innovation, especially if they are staring at the face of today’s big winner. It is extremely difficult to cut the apron strings from a current-performing business unit or product, and focus on the baby-steps of a new one. After all, a bird in hand is certainly worth two in the bush; so if we have a current cash cow, let's just focus all our resources in shoring it up, making sure that we maintain this strength. Unfortunately, that is a recipe for disaster. By not focusing on tomorrow, especially when you have strength today, you will be starving your future for the present. And when it finally runs out, as all cash cows are wont to do, you will be left stranded. So in this article, I start with 15 questions to allow you to see if indeed you are running an innovative organisation, uncovering different areas of focus, and then from there look at the leadership challenge to bring innovation into the fore for your organistion.
Answer the following questions "yes" or "no" (ignore the letters in parentheses for now)…
Do you have a vision for your innovation strategy? (S)
Are all members of senior management champions of at least one innovation project? (P)
Do you use a methodology to develop your innovative ideas and test them? (M)
Are your innovation projects specifically linked to business objectives? (O)
Do you have an annual budget for innovation? (B)
Are your current innovation projects aligned with your core competencies? (O)
Do you identify the maximum time to take to bring your minimum viable product to market? (M)
Do you have a head of innovation who is trained to manage projects, and can guide all levels of management to success? (P)
Do you have, or know how, to implement innovation pivots? (M)
Have you segmented your strategy so as to take advantage of first mover, fast follower, or imitator positions? (S)
Is your innovation budget in the range of 10% – 15% of your total budget? (B)
Are you willing to kill a project if it crosses either time or budget limits, walking away from sunk costs? (O)
Are all your innovation teams trained to conduct innovation projects? (P)
Do you communicate your innovation strategy to all your staff and get them involved? (S)
Have you determined the size of next year’s innovation budget? (B)
Assessing your responses
1. Total number of yeses versus noes
The first cut assessment is the total number of "Yes" responses versus the number of "No" responses. Obviously, the more "Yes" responses you have, the more of an innovation bent your organisation has. Having many noes does not necessarily make your organisation less innovative, perhaps it simply lacks strength in certain areas. Which brings us to the next assessment...
2. Specific areas of focus
Next, you should look at the different innovation areas that are relatively weaker than others. To do this, look at this mapping...
Strategy (S) - Questions 1, 10, 14
Operations (O) - Questions 4, 6, 12
Budgeting (B) - Questions 5, 11, 15
Methodology (M) - Questions 3, 7, 9
People (P) - Questions 2, 8, 13
Although three questions per area is too few, the intent here is not to do a complete deep dive, but to have a sense of where we should be focusing on in our bid to improve innovation leadership in the organisation. So those areas that are all "No" should be the key focus for your organisational development.
3. Design and implement your solution
This third step is obviously the most important. The issue is not just about developing skills; it is more about creating an innovation culture, and this means that you must identify, instruct, implement, and iterate behavioural change. This brings me to the next section of this article - leading an innovation culture.
Leading an Innovation Culture
There is no greater leadership imperative than to build an innovation culture in your organisation. Since innovation is so crucial to the growth of a company, it cannot be left to chance. It also cannot be the responsibility of a select few in the company. True, there are some companies who embrace the concept of skunkworks, a process of sequestering a group of highly intelligent individuals to work in complete secrecy on new products - Lockheed Martin does this, Apple does this, Nissan does this - many other companies don't have the resources nor the wherewithal to maintain such an operation. For them, it is best to deploy the whole organisation to the task of innovation, to bring to bear the collective intellect of all those who have the most to gain from new products, new services, new markets, new customers - the people in the company! And the steps to take that are the 4I's - identify, instruct, implement and innovate.
1. Identify your innovation behaviours
Behaviours are observable actions that demonstrate how one works. Behaviours can be developed through repeated action. Obviously, we need to know what behaviours to develop before we set about developing them. Here are a few that you might like to look at, identifying which your organisation wants to adopt
open communication across the organisation
free flow of information
support and trust for innovative action
questioning the status quo
2. Instruct your people in applying these behaviours
Having identified your innovation behaviours, you must now instruct them on how to develop these behaviours. While they may seem obvious, not everyone knows how to develop those behaviours and they may need some prompting in how to develop these behaviours. It may be helpful to have an official "kickoff" session, where you launch the behaviours for the organisation, and getting all your staff to sign off on them. This gives great visibility to the importance of the behaviours to the organisation, and leadership's focus on their adoption. You may also create a simple training programme, supported by simple collaterals that are placed strategically around the office, to remind all of the behaviours.
3. Implement the adoption of behaviours
You need to give some time for the behaviours to catch on, but you can start to facilitate the process of implementation by gametising the process. Create a "Gotcha!" Board, where people can publicly acknowledge people when they exhibit the required behaviours, no matter how trivial the matter. Leaders need to start talking up these behaviours, encouraging all to apply them at every opportunity. Over time, these behaviours will start to sink in, and the organisation will start to become more innovative. This is when you can start on the path of the last I, innovate.
It is only now that you can start the innovation process. Create a simple process of managing innovation projects, having all members of senior management personally overseeing at least one project. Create objectives, success metrics, and timelines, pulling in all the required resources. Don't forget to embrace the hypothesis-driven process, where you test your ideas in the market with your customers, and even co-creating solutions with them. The more you can do this, the better the success of your innovations will be.
Your leadership challenge
Leading innovation is a key skill for all leaders. Each level of leadership focuses on different aspects of the leadership challenge, viz.
team leaders focus on facilitating frontline innovation
operations leaders (department heads) focus on keeping frontline innovation on track by acquiring and releasing resources
strategic leaders (senior management) focus on keeping the culture alive and nurturing
but taken together, they form a complete and inclusive innovation leadership culture. As leaders, your challenge is to create that whole innovation engine that will support your efforts to build the for the future. This is the ONLY way you can ensure that your organisation remains viable - and grow - over the following decades.
Innovation cannot be left to chance. Sure, serendipity is the fuel of many breakthrough thinking, but we cannot use that as an innovation strategy. There is a need to manage innovation as the strategic ingredient that it is, and that starts with developing the right culture. And, as you roll back the ingredients for culture, you arrive at behaviours, the fundamental building block for your habits which finally commingle to become your culture. So start by identifying the behaviours for innovation, then instruct them on how to develop those behaviours, implementing them with a subtle monitoring system to encourage their constant use, and then, apply those behaviours in driving innovation in your organisation.