The talent acquisition wish-list is clear. Innovative thinking is a key requirement of directors looking for senior management ready to embrace change and harness new ideas.
The strategic goal is to institutionalise innovation, make it integral to the organisation and thereby achieve long-term competitive advantage. But experience to date suggests ‘owning’ innovation is easier said than done. Innovation lip-service is commonplace. Breaking with past practice is not.
Feedback from innovation insiders often highlights the mismatch between innovation advocacy and innovation reality.
‘Intrapreneurs’ hired to inject entrepreneurial thinking and innovative risk-taking into a business routinely complain of “innovation-naïve management” and “inflexible programmes and policies” or denounce window-dressing (wearing jeans instead of pin-stripes is permitted but lateral thinking isn’t).
Literature on business innovation is full of tips for wannabe innovators. For example:
- Hire curious people – bring in staff who are high on curiosity, even if they’re low on experience
- Go on listening tours – gather feedback from customers, suppliers and peers and get out your comfort zone
- Avoid total risk avoidance – employ staff known for successful risk-taking
- Tolerate mistakes – develop an organisational tolerance for error
- Negate nay-sayers – insist that those who shoot down new ideas come up with alternative solutions
- Encourage new learning – one method is multi-disciplinary team-formation as cross fertilisation produces new ‘green shoots’
- Put humility to work – arrogance and a ‘we-know-best’ mind-set kills fresh ideas so listen more, dictate less
- Think different – technology is not the only innovation driver; re-imagining existing processes also promotes change
- Think small – start-ups and SMEs run by owner-managers often innovate more than big business and can be a useful source of inspiration
- Think broad – have a 360-degree view of business, which means keeping an eye on global developments and new departures in industries outside your own (as ideas from one sector can often be adapted to another)
- Become a killer – identify all pointless, time-consuming practices that make it difficult for customers to buy from you and for suppliers to deal with you and kill them off (creative, energetic people work best when restrictions are removed).
This, however, is a to-do list rather than a strategy that will enable a business to ‘own’ innovation and build it into the organisational culture.
For this to happen, top management must be brave enough to commit to innovation as a major driver of performance. For a cultural shift to occur, business leaders must take responsibility for continual innovation.
From the top down, the message has to be communicated that everyone must be prepared to innovate. Innovation is not a department or an initiative and it is certainly not locked away in the product development division.
For innovation to be embedded in the culture, it has to be encouraged throughout the organisation. Everyone in every department at every level must embrace their role as innovators. If they have new ideas they must share them.
Only senior management can build individual confidence and motivation like that. There’s a word for business leaders who can pull that off … they’re called true innovators.
Annelize van Rensburg is a director of Talent Africa – member of Signium, a leading executive search and talent management company.