The Truth About Innovation

May 1, 2012 Alex Vincent

The Truth About Innovation

Alex Vincent, Senior Consultant, Leadership Solutions Practice, Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions

Innovation is a lightning strike. It is a sudden, unpredictable moment of epiphany ─ bold, new, game-changing idea born of a single, fertile mind.

Sounds great. Too bad that it’s complete hogwash.

Innovation is, according to the most innovative organizations, most definitely a team effort. Innovation involves hard and sustained work, both in terms of bringing together all the right minds and skill sets, but also in bringing those new ideas to market. And it is so very rarely a single great idea produced by a single great mind.

And perhaps most importantly, innovation is a skill that needs to be developed. It doesn’t just happen; it requires deliberate, focused attention and an organization-wide commitment to assuming risk and embracing change.

Why do so many organizations still subscribe to the myth of the individual innovator? Part of it is a by-product of society’s need to promote innovation celebrities: from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs, the broader public likes to believe that the greatest innovations are attributable to an individual, not a systematic process. And many innovative organizations deliberately feed the myth by making their celebrities the face of a product or service. Few consumers know that it took a team of hundreds of engineers and design specialists to create the iPad; most consumers prefer a more romanticized notion that the late Steve Jobs dreamt up the idea one night over a glass of Merlot.

Apple is perhaps the best example of a company that has an authentic and well-deserved track record of innovation that feeds the myth for public consumption, and yet embraces the best practices of innovation. Despite Job’s universal profile, he frequently admitted that he did not come up with the ideas for Apple’s game-changing products on his own. Job’s said his talent was assembling the right innovation teams, and then pushing them to innovate and problem solve.

Building the innovation “dream team”

If innovation is a team pursuit, then how do you build teams that will produce results? Some attention must be paid to finding the right mix of team members. As well, there must be a commitment to implementing basic behaviours and processes that support a culture of innovation and collaborative team work.

There are many different ways of describing the types of people you need on an effective innovation team. But in broad terms, three distinct categories that must be represented:

• The Dreamers. These are the individuals who can dream big. They are the theoretical thinkers, the people who are not entirely sure how to do something, but instinctively know that their idea is worthy of pursuit.

• The True Innovators. These people share some of the same characteristics as the dreamers, but have more knowledge of the processes and technologies needed to convert a bold idea into a reality. These people bring structure to innovation.

• The Problem Solvers: Once the dreamers and the innovators polish the idea and bring some operational reality to it, then the problem solvers take over. They figure out where to make the new product, how to get it to market and how to support it once it has been unleashed on customers.

Focusing the innovation

So, you’ve put in place a well-rounded innovation team. The next challenge is identifying the innovation project to be undertaken. Although it’s difficult to fathom, many organizations hell-bent on becoming more “innovative” put together teams but do nothing to define the mandate.

It will be essential to put your innovation team through a rigorous process of clearly identifying and articulating the innovation challenges facing the organization. That could involve problems with customer service, the need for a whole new product line, or an internal system that will make the organization more efficient. The critical task here is to hone down a list of challenges that require innovation, and then commit the team to finding solutions.

In many cases, this will require the team to focus on a single challenge. Too many projects or challenges can dilute the potency of a team dealing with an innovation challenge. It will also drag out the time needed to find a solution. And remember, finding that solution will require all team members to weigh in, each with their own unique perspective.

Leading the innovation

Once the team is in place, and the project has been defined, then its gut-check time for leadership. Many promising innovation initiatives have been derailed by a lack of conviction at the top levels of an organization. Effective, committed leadership is in so many ways just as important as the innovative idea. Without that leadership, many good ideas will simply die on the vine.

What does effective leadership mean in an innovation context? It is leadership that does not punish failure. It is leadership that understands that true innovation is often a committed process. And perhaps most importantly, that innovation involves great change, and that great change will be difficult for some organizations to endure.

More specifically, leaders must ensure their innovation teams maintain forward momentum at all time. From getting the teams to focus on the generation of new ideas, to the testing of promising prototypes, to the implementation of the most promising new products and services, there must be constant progress. This will demonstrate the organization’s commitment to innovation.

Leaders must remember that to make an organization truly innovative, they must encourage and support a constant stream of new ideas, prototypes and implementation. This creates a sustainable culture of innovation.

It is a simple but successful model for innovation: generate ideas, select, prototype, test, implement, and repeat.

About the Author

Alex Vincent

Alex Vincent is Principal, Global Faculty Leader with Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge Leadership Solutions. Alex’s focus is on helping maximize individual, team and organizational performance. He is an experienced facilitator and consultant in the area of leadership development focusing on personal leadership, team coaching, and the execution or organizational strategy.

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