A few words about innovation and leadership

I remember reading, a few years ago, a report with inspiring title “Unleashing the power of innovation.” To get a sense of what’s going on with innovation around the world, the authors of the report approached 246 CEOs and served them with a set of softball questions.

The respondents didn’t disappoint. Yes, we see innovation as a priority to our companies. Yes, we consider ourselves innovation leaders and visionaries as opposed to being simply sponsors of innovation programs. Of course, strong business leadership and right culture are the key ingredients for innovation success. Sure, we take personal responsibility for directing and inspiring innovation.

Nice, isn’t it.

My sense of tranquility was suddenly shaken, though, when I reached the last question of the survey asking about constraints stopping the CEOs from “being more innovative.” Three top answers to this question were: “Financial resources,” “Existing organization culture” and “Lack of talent.”

Wait a minute! Why do these captains of industry view the three constraints as something that is completely out of their control, like a natural disaster? Is it not within the authority of a CEO to allocate enough financial resources to pursue innovation activities? Is it not the responsibility of a CEO to implement corporate policies fostering the culture of innovation? Is it not a CEO’s job to create conditions attracting and retaining innovative employees? Is that how they take personal responsibility for directing and inspiring innovation?

I can’t overstate it: nothing will happen in any organization aspiring to innovate without active personal involvement from the C-suite. Nothing.

Unfortunately, over the years, many CEOs have mastered the art of talking about innovation, delivering well-rounded answers to friendly questions in non-confrontational surveys and interviews.

But a frighteningly large number of them still demonstrate what I call a “cloudy vision” of the very fundamentals of the innovation process. Too many CEOs take a hands-off approach to innovation management, proudly claiming instead that “in our company, innovation is everyone’s job.” And while talking non-stop about the culture of innovation, they neglect to introduce specific corporate policies encouraging and rewarding their employees’ innovation efforts.

Acts of leadership can come in many shapes and shades. On occasion, it can be a sentence said in the right place at the right time. A story that happened some time ago illustrates my last point.

A large multi-national company invited me to a ceremony celebrating the launch of a major open innovation initiative in one of its leading R&D divisions. I was representing a company that was providing an online platform supporting the initiative.

Highlighting the importance of the occasion, the ceremony was attended by a very big R&D boss from the corporate headquarters. In his pep talk, the boss (I’ll call him John) spoke about the virtues of open innovation, the importance of the new initiative, and the need for everyone in this location to get involved. He concluded his talk with a customary “Any questions?”

A young fellow in the crowd of scientists raised his hand. Apparently sensing an opportunity to impress the high-profile visitor, he said: “John, I’m so busy with my current projects. How can I find time to run an open innovation campaign and then go through a pile of external submissions, while simultaneously running multiple experiments?”

John looked back at the young fellow for a few long seconds (too long, I thought) and then said: “Look, we’ve charged you with solving a problem that is important to our company and we want you to succeed. I personally don’t care how you do that. If running experiments is enough, fine. However, if you fail, we’ll ask you: what have you done–in addition to running your own experiments–to have this problem solved? And please, don’t tell us then that you were too busy to go through a pile of external submissions.”

By the expression on the young fellow’s face–and by the silence that suddenly filled the auditorium–I realized that John’s message got across. I smiled to myself. By saying just a few words, John had managed to achieve what in many organizations takes years: he helped create a culture of open innovation in this R&D division.

Leadership matters. A cliché? Sure, but it does.

Image credit: Jehyun Sung on Splash

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is the Founder of (WoC)2, an innovation consultancy that helps organizations extract maximum value from the wisdom of crowds by coordinated use of internal and external crowdsourcing.
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