Leadership Mindsets to Foster Innovation

When lively conversations abound on the subject of innovation, invariably, the matter of culture emerges. Does the organization have a suitable culture to nourish innovation? If not, why not? Often, management is held up as a scapegoat for the lack of innovation. Karl Ronn recently said, “Companies that think they have an innovation problem don’t have an innovation problem. They have a leadership problem.”

Scott Anthony, a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review blog and managing partner of Innosight, took note of Ronn’s recent comment. Anthony  had featured Ronn in The Little Black Book of Innovation, and considers him to be “thoughtful, widely read, a seasoned practitioner, and a great communicator.” Anthony wrote of him in a recent HBR blog post:

Ronn’s basic idea was that four decades of academic research and two decades of conscious implementation of that work have provided robust, actionable answers to many pressing innovation questions. Practitioners have robust tools to discover opportunities to innovate, design, and execute experiments to address key strategic uncertainty; to create underlying systems to enable innovation in their organization; and to manage the tension between operating today’s business and creating tomorrow’s businesses. Large companies like IBM, Syngenta, Procter & Gamble, 3M, and Unilever show that innovation can be a repeatable discipline. Emerging upstarts like Google and Amazon.com show how innovation can be embedded into an organization’s culture from day one.

Pixar innovationIn Building a Growth Factory, David Duncan and Anthony suggested why many others have not been successful: too many companies use point solutions to address a systematic challenge. They may offer an idea challenge, ideation session, growth group, corporate venturing arm or incentives for innovation…

(writes Anthony,) “None of these is bad, but point solutions don’t solve system-level problems. Duncan and I suggest working on four systems — a growth blueprint, production systems, governance and controls, and leadership, talent, and culture. It isn’t easy to do all of that, but it is what is required to really make innovation work at scale.” (continuing:)

Ronn agrees, but notes that the responsibility for such systemic work ultimately rests with a company’s leadership team. And it’s absolutely necessary. Research by Clayton Christensen, Rita McGrath, Richard D’aveni, and Richard Foster make very clear that we are in a new era where competitive advantage is a transitory notion. (McGrath’s forthcoming book is provocatively titled The End of Competitive Advantage.) Any executive that doesn’t make innovation a strategic priority, ensure there is ample investment in it, and approach the problem strategically is committing corporate malfeasance.

Further, leaders can’t just set the context and hope that innovation happens. Innovation is enough of an unnatural act in most companies (which were built to scale yesterday’s business model, not discover tomorrow’s) that it requires the day-by-day attention of the company’s top leadership team or it simply won’t stick.

The leadership challenge facing executives today is to balance today’s needs versus tomorrow’s. In the current environment, productivity and risk management are priorities. In the longer run, being able to anticipate market needs and adjust one’s go-to-market strategy are critical. Leaders must now be good at both to create and sustain competitive advantage. 

Anthony acknowledges that, to justify why innovation is a struggle, leaders mention factors such as “short-term pressures from investors, talent deficiencies, the challenge of implementing innovation-friendly rewards structures, the still fuzzy nature of innovation, and, in candid moments, their own discomfort with the different mental frames required to lead innovation.”

Most importantly, the paradigm shift needs to occur whereby the goal moves from being most innovative among a peer group of companies to being cutting edge like some of the upstart organizations known for redefining the playing field. 

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