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Leadership for Innovation

Leadership for Innovation

| On 20, Oct 2007

Praveen Gupta

Everyone is talking about innovation in the corporate world. Books, conferences, courses, and presentations abound. Corporate executives are surveyed, and results publicized. Corporations are becoming more innovative just by availability of more information, and networked environment in the flat world. The question remains how does a CEO make his or her company more innovative? What should a leader do?

I have been thinking a lot. I sometimes give answers but the question remains the same…how to lead the innovation initiative? An organization can become innovative in two ways:

  1. Allocating specific resources at a disjointed location to come up with a breakthrough solution, or
  2. Institutionalize innovation through culture of creativity and thinking workers for developing innovative solutions continually.

In case of a dedicated team of few brightest people working together in isolation appears to be a paradigm of the last century where one has to get away from the noise of the factory, or smoke off fighting fires. Today, people have flexible hours, think 24/7 due to globalization; gain new experiences through Internet; and exchange new ideas continually. The world has become a community that can not be separated or isolated.

The process of creating a culture of thinking employees innovating continually appeals to me more as a leadership initiative. I can imagine in an organization of 100, 500, 1000, or even more than 100,000 employees there will be tons of innovative ideas. You are right when you think that ideas are dime a dozen. But once employees can think freely, the leadership can play the role of exploiting employee ideas into breakthrough solutions. Filtering ideas can be a process based on market requirements, feasibility criteria, and return on investment analysis. Breakthrough solutions will comprise multiple innovative ideas. New products or services will have to be developed fast through the new product development (NPD) process. Thus, the NPD process must be streamlined. Innovations with optimal designs perfected through operations and synchronized with customers’ love to have requirements tend to have high ROI. Given the product life cycle, from cradle to grave, is shrinking, we would need many breakthrough solutions every year. We simply would not be able to live with one new product every nth year. We actually need “n” innovative products every year!

What should then leadership do? Liberate employees from shackles of ‘it is not your job’ ‘we do not have time’ ‘we already have so many ideas’ or ‘we don’t have resources.’ Instead invest some resources in streamlining and speeding the NPD process, and synchronize the Idea Management process with the market demand. Make new products or solutions a priority, culture of creativity the corporate DNA, and management processes efficient. Instead of explaining why not to do something new, encourage why not try it out. Give employees time and freedom to come up with crazy, stupid, or funny ideas. They will go through the feasibility and ROI filters and come up with breakthrough innovations. Do not be afraid to have too many ideas. We have learned that crazy, stupid and funny ideas take more time to think, and are more innovative to begin with. Commercializing the right idea is the leadership challenge.

I am sure we would love to hear more opinions about this topic. Challenge and speak up!