Innovation has become a major focus for business leaders looking to unlock new growth – you just need to find the game changers within your team who hold the key
Innovation is continuing its rise up the priority list of the world’s business leaders. With mounting evidence of the positive link between a company’s investment in innovation and its rate of business growth, chief executives are placing increasing focus on generating the new ideas and initiatives that can help propel them to their next phase.
Indeed, respondents to PwC’s 20th CEO Survey put innovation down as one of the key drivers for their business alongside talent, technology and competitive advantage. This focus was particularly marked in the consumer goods sector, where innovation was identified as the key to new opportunity for 34% of businesses compared with a global average of 23%. There is acknowledgement, however, that cracking the nut of innovation – an amorphous term at the best of times – is not something easily done: survey respondents rated creativity and innovation as one of the two hardest qualities to find, with the other being leadership skills.
This raises the question of whether companies are successfully fostering environments that encourage innovation to flourish. ‘Official’ channels and processes designed to support innovation can sometimes bring a top-down approach that makes the creation of ideas feel less of an organic process and more an order from on high.
Allied to this are the deep-rooted cultural issues – the unsaid rules and misguided assumptions about who is responsible for innovation within the business – that can prevent employees from taking the initiative. In these scenarios, unless it’s part of their job title or implicit in their role, such as R&D, then opportunities for innovation can get lost under the weight of a day-to-day to-do list. The net result is that these invisible barriers all contribute to an environment where bubbles of innovation are prevented from rising to the surface.
The other question is whether businesses are actually looking for innovation in the right place. It’s possible that the true innovators – those with real game-changing potential – are sitting within the business but are being overlooked or having their potential suppressed. Rather than putting a structure around innovation and staffing it with ‘innovative’ people, could it be more effective to find the true innovators in the business, free them of excessive structure and let the innovation follow?
Harnessing the energies of these members of the team can be transformative. They can provide the glue that bonds the delicate financial, operational and cultural elements necessary for innovation to succeed. They are the chef, the mechanic or the composer with the ability to bring all the various moving parts together to make them truly hum in unison.
That said, finding them can be difficult. They won’t be walking around in a Mr or Mrs Innovator t-shirt nor will they have a light bulb hovering above their heads intermittently pulsing with bright idea after bright idea. They are identifiable, however, through a range of qualities that marks them out from the crowd. These can be qualities can be cognitive, such as an inquiring mind that naturally seeks to challenge pre-conceived ideas, the imagination to see things from a different perspective and the vision to picture how things could be improved. Alternatively, they can be more a question of aptitude, including the communication skills to connect with people across the business, the energy and determination to make things happen and see things through and a passion for innovation and change.
These skills combine in varying ratios, meaning it’s important to seek out an individual or individuals who meet the demands of your business. For example, do you need someone to unlock hitherto untapped ideas or do you need someone who can accelerate the ideas that, for whatever reason, have failed to take off or deliver on their promise?
Whatever they look like, once you have found your changemaker, then train, guide and back them. Give them a clear understanding of what good innovation looks like for your business: does it need to be revenue-generating? Are you seeking big leaps forward or incremental gains?
Of course, in some businesses, these talents will be embodied within the Chief Innovation Officer. In other companies, innovation is the explicit responsibility of the entire workforce – Google, for example, famously encourages employees to devote 20% of their time to projects outside of their regular work from which the company could stand to benefit. Whether Googlers actually take advantage of this opportunity is a moot point. More significant is the importance that Google, a business with a market capitalisation approaching $90bn despite still being a teenager, continues to place on supporting individuals with an appetite for innovation. And evidently this continuing commitment to empowering its changemakers has helped it remain one of the world’s most innovative companies.