Have you ever wondered how companies like Apple, Airbnb and Netflix are so successful at innovation when so many other companies fail?
The Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL) conducted a survey in 2015 for senior executives that revealed only 14% thought well of their companies’ endeavours into innovation, despite 94% regarding innovation to be important.
Perhaps the answer lies in how we view innovation. Many among us think of innovation as dramatic changes that disrupt or overhaul an entire industry near overnight. It is hard to deny that these do tend to be the most newsworthy innovations. However, they are arguably also the hardest kind to achieve, and certainly, not the only type of innovation that matters.
What more companies should consider instead is “continuous innovation.” According to the CCL, “Continuous innovation consists of smaller, more frequent innovations. These lead to smaller gains, but [can lead to more consistently positive impacts in a company] over time”. For an example, we can refer to how Airbnb first introduced the booking of rooms or flats, before progressing to the booking of experiences.
Focusing on “continuous innovation” not only helps an organisation to maintain its ability to be innovative, but also drives the organisation forward in a steady, measured manner, and can even aid in eventually building towards more dramatic and groundbreaking innovations in the future.
So, how can you be a successful leader in innovation? First you will need to be aware that leading innovation is different to leading ongoing business operations in 4 critical ways:
- Not only are outcomes uncertain, but the entire context of the innovation process is uncertain. General ideas may change in the course of the project.
- It is high profile. Typically, innovation efforts are among the most visible in the entire organisation, which can prove to be risky.
- Innovation is risky and failures are common, even likely. There can often be dramatic ups and downs over the course of an innovation project.
- It is uncharted territory. Sometimes even the innovators are unclear on the direction of the project as there are no fixed paths in innovation.
The CCL interviewed individuals and their bosses who were involved in and managed substantial and successful innovation projects in order to gauge the necessary traits required of leaders to provide the support needed to innovators in their teams, so as to ensure the most conducive environment for their work to flourish.
What they discovered was that leaders needed to allow innovators to take creative control and demonstrate trust in innovators’ abilities despite the intrinsic uncertainty surrounding their work. They must also be aware of the bigger picture and keep their goals in mind to keep motivation and morale high, so as not to discourage innovators, even during hard times. Last but not least, leaders must also treat their innovators as equals in sharing the “risks and outcomes” so that the people driving innovation can understand their commitment to innovation.
At the end of the day, in order to sustain innovators’ efforts over long periods of time and to be able to take the risks necessary for successful innovation, leaders must provide greater emotional support to their teams and especially, to their innovators.