Road Breakthrough

Iterative Innovation Goes Beyond the Lightbulb

Innovation is essential. But it’s also elusive. 

According to McKinsey, most executives are dissatisfied with the outcomes of their innovation projects. (Only 6% aren’t.) And if you’ve ever led such a project or team that failed, well, the bad news is this: It may have been your fault.

The good news? Creating an environment that allows innovation to flourish is not as complicated as you might think.

Companies talk a lot about innovation. In a survey of more than 800 UK business leaders, two-thirds said innovation was important to their organizations’ success. However, only one-third said they were innovating successfully enough to generate revenue or measurable growth. The findings go downhill from there. Only a quarter of boards of directors make innovation a priority, and 40% of leaders reject disruptive ideas because of a fear of failure.

Disruption is already happening. Digital startups and more innovative incumbents are appearing all of the time. Indeed, the Internet is disintermediating nearly every type of business. It’s also tempting to think innovation starts in a conference room full of people strategizing or in the board room. The truth is, great ideas are often born at the edge of the enterprise, and they can come from anywhere.

As a business leader, bringing together the right skills and talents to harness ideas so innovation will thrive is crucial.  


Paul Robson
“Businesses that don’t view innovation as a strategic imperative will likely fail as more agile competitors take the lead. ”
Paul Robson, President, International, Adobe

“Innovation is an essential quality of the modern enterprise. It has to be the lifeblood of every company,” Robson said. “And that means it needs to flow through every part of the enterprise, from operations to marketing to technology to the leadership team. We all need to become innovation champions and encourage others to take up the same mantle.”

Culture and People, Always

Forget the tired, old lightbulb metaphor. You can't simply switch on innovation. And it doesn’t happen overnight. Business leaders must work to create an organizational culture that encourages, fosters, and supports innovative teams. Innovation is everyone’s job, not select teams.

Employees should be encouraged to innovate alongside their day-to-day jobs. This is a balancing act but can be achieved by creating a framework that maps out how employees can participate in an innovation program with minimal disruption to daily operations. Such a framework also accounts for the participation of all employees beyond the core innovation team and establishes new KPIs and other metrics that show innovation's impact.  

It is also important to set expectations about progress at an operational level. Individuals and teams must be allowed to “fail” in order to find new ways to move forward. Encourage employees to step out of their comfort zones and not be afraid if new ideas don’t work.

Leadership teams also need to be consistent in how the enterprise encourages innovation and must realize it takes time. Leaders must speak with a consistent message about the importance of innovation and then keep their hands off while their teams innovate. Resist the urge to micromanage. Have faith in your people and resist succumbing to HIPPO (highest paid person’s opinion) syndrome.

Be Customer And Data-Driven

Every great innovation is about the customer. So whether it’s improving internal processes, making production lines more efficient, or creating a better online gateway for clients, every innovation comes with the question: “How does this help our customer?”

Customer experience needs to be an enterprise-wide focus. For that to happen, organizations must learn as much as they can about their customers. That means integrating user data from multiple sources and cutting across operational silos.

Also, when collating vast amounts of customer interaction and behavioral data, don’t underestimate the role artificial intelligence (AI) can play in surfacing insights into customer behavior and habits.

Think Processes—And Think Progress

In addition to building the right operational framework and determining what customers want, innovation-focused teams need support to develop and move ideas forward.

Similar to certain departments and teams that can turn to a project management office for support functions and capabilities, innovation teams should have at their disposal the same level of support. An "innovation office" offers a bridge between the innovation team and the rest of the business, helping track and manage ideas, facilitate innovation, and provide collaboration “coaches” to turn ideas into reality. Business change needs to be an end goal of the innovation process, so a process is necessary.

Finally, leadership teams should ensure that innovation remains aligned with the organization’s strategic goals. They should also recognize and reward innovation and consider new metrics and KPIs as they become apparent to measure success and progress.

Putting innovation at the center of your organization doesn’t start with a spark of genius. It begins with laying the foundations that allow innovative thinking to take root and flourish. It’s about focusing on the customer and making data-driven decisions. And it’s about creating the operational and support framework that lets ideas take flight. Innovation delivers benefits beyond product development and more satisfied customers—it also contributes to more engaged and satisfied employees, and helps the business remain competitive against industry peers. 

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