Whether an organisation is for-profit or non-profit, offer products or services.For it to remain competitive in the industry, it must be innovative. This requires strong leadership, not only to drive the innovation process, but also to make innovation the culture in the organisation. Top management support is critical to the success of the innovation process.
Let us examine how leaders can developvision for innovation, create an environment for innovation, choose the innovationstrategy, communicate the innovation vision, make innovation the culture, overcomeresistance to innovation, and provide leadership for the customer who is theconsumer of the end product.
I remember the story of a man with little education, but invented the largest earth moving equipment aroundthe World War II, and registered over 300 patents in the United States of America. This is to encourage us to believe that we also can receive innovative ideasfrom God.
A leader’s success is not measured by what he can accomplish alone, but by the accomplishment of the followers. Leaders are brokers of human resources. Leadership remains the core catalyst that drives creativity and innovation,and leaders must establish an environment in which to build an organisational culture that allows creativity to thrive. Davila et. al. said; “strong leadership from senior management is essential to achieving success in innovation.”
Therefore, leadership is the ability to influence one or more people to achieve goals. It is the responsibility of leadership to create that environment where innovation can flourish. It plays a critical role in the innovation process. I will like to focus on what leaders do in cultivating the vision, strategies, structure, and culture required to make innovation happen, not just once, but again and again.
One of the major characteristics of effective leaders is vision. Leaders recognise potential and seeopportunities for improvement. They have the vision, fuel innovation as they seek to turn theirdreams to reality. Without strong leadership, many innovative ideas would not see the light of day. People likeSteve Jobs of Apple, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and Richard Branson of Virgin, have led and driven their organisations to exceptionally high levels of innovative performance.
A vision is the picture of a preferable future. Between the present reality and preferable future, changeis imperative. To make change happen, we must innovate. Innovating new products and services is the keyto the continuedsuccess of an organisation. Unfortunately, the greatest enemy of future success for an organisation may be its past success. The tendency for things to decline which is calledentropy afflicts organisations.
Leadership should provide guidance on the type of innovation the organisation shouldseek, where to explore for ideas, how to create great value, and most importantly,what a great innovation looks like. It is a leader’s responsibility to put in place theright metrics and motivators by making the innovation process manageable and byproducing the right attitude. Leaders must fight complacency and keep alive the genuine drive for valuable change as complacency at the top leads to complacency within.
Below are some of the ways that leaders can create an enabling environment that encourages employee creativity:
*Drawing on the right minds: The priority of leadership is engaging the rightpeople, at the right time, to the right degree in creative work.
*Encouraging and enabling collaboration: As leaders look beyond the top ranksfor creative direction, they must combat the “lone inventor myth.” Some of the best ideas come sometimes from the lower ranks that make direct contact with consumers or customers.
*Opening the organisation to diverse perspectives: Innovation is more likelywhen people of different disciplines, origins, and areas of expertise share theirthought patterns.
*Bringing process to bear by increasing scale in operationalprocesses.
*Creating a filtering mechanism.
*Providing intellectual challenge.
*Giving people freedom to pursue their passions.
*Embracing the certainty of failure.
Choosing Innovation Strategy
There is a method for innovation, and by definition, innovation is a charge into the unknown. The best innovators develop a deep-seated culture of experimentation where success is built on growth and innovation. It provides the opportunity for a company to put its mark on the evolution of business.
The three major types of innovation are:
Incremental Innovation: This involves a small change in one or more of the six levers of both technology and business model innovations. Incremental Innovation leads to small improvements to existing products and business processes. It is the most common type of innovation in companies but the problem is that it represents a constrained approach to creativity that could serve as a trap and lead to a company’s death.
Semi-radical Innovation: There is little change in one or more of the three levers of either technology or business modelinnovations. Semi-radical innovations provide crucial changes to the competitive environment that an incremental innovationcannot. Semi-radical innovations involve substantial changes to either the business model or the technology of an organisation butnot to both. How to manage both the business model and technology components of the semi radical innovationremains a major challenge for most organisations. Amazon is an example of a semi-radical innovation in itsbusiness model.
Radical Innovation: There is a significant change in one or more of the three levers that brings drastic changes to the competitiveenvironment in an industry. Hence, successful radical innovations have the potential to reset the rules of the game in any industry.
For example, Apple adopted a radical innovation approach to its products and service offerings with the introduction of iPodsand iPads. Also, Microsoft adopted radical innovations in the past that that were game-changers across many industries.
Communicating the Innovation Vision
It does not matter how grand a leader’s vision for innovation is, if he or she cannot communicate it effectively to motivate his or her team to action, it would not materialise. What a CEO says and does, sends a strong message to all on whether innovation is encouraged in the organisation or not. One of the remarkable qualities possessed by Steve Jobs of Apple Inc. was the fact that apart from being a creative inventor, he had the ability to transfer his passion to both employees and customers. He effectively communicated his vision of the usefulness of his products. The day people grasp a vision is the day they assume they are hearing it for the first time.
Leaders know that just like products and services, ideas need to be sold to their followers. They should weave their innovation visions into stories, bring them up in the flow ofconversations, and put them on mainlinemedia. Not only that, theCEO should model the priority of innovationby devoting a good proportion of his or hertime to innovation activities. Innovationshould become the culture of the organisation.
Making Innovation theCulture
All successful organizational change must originate at the top. Bill Gates of Microsoft andSteve Jobs of Apple are examples of CEOs who passionately drove theirmanagement teams and organizations to the highest level ofcreativity and innovation performance with the cooperation of theirfollowers. However, creating a favourable atmosphere for innovation tothrive depends on good leadership. Effective leaders use the tools ofcommunity building to create an environment in which many leaders canemerge, and leadership provides guidance on the types of innovation the organisation should seek, where to explore for ideas, how to create greatvalue, and most important, what a great innovation looks like. Jack Welchurged investors and engineers to be patient with innovation during histime at GE. This is a necessary ingredient for top leadership to create theculture, organisation, and management systems to allow the kind ofmidlevel support to happen.
Innovative leaders nurture creative followership in a friendlyculture by:
*Focusing on behaviours to change culture and attitude offollowers.
*Introducing metrics and motivators to drive creative behaviours.
*Meeting employees where they are and with what they need.
*Encouraging social learning systems through networks.
Also, employee creativity and innovation are essential to businesssuccess and leaders can improve creativity in their followers by organisingbrainstorming sessions. Having a clear direction from the top enables organisations to support, motivate and reward the activities thatencourage creativity and innovation. Creativity is a matter of choice, notof chance.
There are challenges that an organisation must overcome in order tobring innovation into reality, and these challenges serve as a prerequisitetowards achieving a successful innovation:
The Life of Ideas: Ideas are everywhere and the life of ideas isthe responsibility of whoever is in charge. Managers determinewhether ideas will thrive in their teams or not.
The Protection: One thing a genius cannot do that her managercan is to protect the team from all kinds of negative influences. Inother words, successful innovators provide cover for their team.
The Execution: Ideas are abstractions that must be nourishedinto whatever form necessary: a demo, a prototype or aproduct, for it to be useful to people. The innovator needs to take the idea out of the door by cultivating the act of doing.
Persuasion: Innovation champions put down their swords and egos to pitch their projects for all they are worth. All innovation heroes survived the closing of doors in their faces. Examples areSteve Jobs (Apple), Page and Brin (Google), and Bill Gates (Microsoft).
The Environment: Innovation flourishes in green houses, and good managers of innovation create an environment for talented people to do their work and to thrive.
The spirit of persuasion fuels innovation at every level, and everysuccessful innovation depends on getting people to believe in things thathave not been done before. Persuasion is needed at every stage in theprocess of bringing an innovative idea to life.
Leading the Customer
One critical step in the innovation process is the adoption of innovation by the targeted consumers. The assumption sometimes is that the exceptional features of the innovation will be enough to convince consumers to adopt it. However, this is rarely the case.
In his autobiography, Mover of Men and Mountains, Robert LeTourneau tells the amazing story of his transformation from a mechanic with only Grade 6 education to an inventor of the largest earth moving equipment of his time. He actually dropped out of school in Grade 6 andbegan to work in a foundry. Then he became an auto-mechanic.After pulling out of a car dealership that went wrong, he began to get contracts to level land for farmers.
This was where his creativity kicked in as he made machines that were able to level land better and faster. Then he went into construction business. However, he sold the machines he invented by the side. His attorney then advised him to focus on the manufacturing and sale of the earthmoving equipment he invented instead of depending on the unpredictable flow of construction contracts.
Le Tourneau was in debt when he committed to support mission work. He began to have Holy Spirit inspired dreams where he saw large earth moving equipment. He produced drawings of the equipment he saw in his dreams with the help of his industrial designers, and then manufactured the equipment. He registered over 300 patents and about half of the earth-moving equipment used by the US Army during World War II came from his factories.
He emphasised that the ideas and dreams came when he andhis wife gave to missions.
Leadership is the key to getting things done, including innovation. Organisations must innovate or fizzle out, and it is up to leadership to capture a vision for innovation and to motivate all to achieve innovation goals. The good news is that leadership is actually at every level in an organisation. Therefore, wherever you may be in the structure of your organisation, developing these qualities will help you to maximise your potentials and the potentials of your unit for innovation.