Editors’s note: This is the first of five articles about leading innovation Dr. Bacon has submitted to Wisepreneur.
Recently I had someone to ask me if innovation moves from the top down or from the bottom up in an organization. This is a common question from any organization concerned with developing innovation. The answer I always give is that the ideas for innovation come from anywhere and everywhere in the organization but the innovation environment comes from the top. So if you want to be an innovation leader, what should you do? Here are a few tips to help your organization prepare for innovative breakthroughs.
Lead innovation by example.
While it is important that the leader of an innovative organization delegate ideation and implementation responsibilities, ultimately an organization has a tendency to reflect the values and behaviors of the leader. If the leader wants innovative action, then the leader must be intimately involved in the innovation process. Good leaders of innovation constantly explain the importance of innovation and the fact that innovation is just part of everyday business. Leaders show that innovation is not the exception but the rule. By incorporating innovation into the leader’s work schedule, then others with innovation responsibilities are more likely to follow. According to Sarzynski and Gibson, “We are not talking about centralizing the responsibility for idea generation and strategy development … we are talking about a company’s leaders taking principal ownership of the innovation embedment process – that is, the process of actively building, sustaining, and managing a corporate-wide innovation capability.” When the leader’s actions show commitment to innovation, others follow.
Tell Innovation Stories
Another way a leader can instill innovation as a core value is to tell stories about successful innovations in the organization. Tom Kelley says, “If your company has done something impressive that tells a story, try to put it front and center in a place that makes your workers proud – and lets clients and visitor see what you do.” Communicating expectations and successes helps alleviate individual concerns and build personal commitment to innovation. According to Kumar Nochur an innovation leader should, “Appeal to the needs, priorities, interests, and problems that are foremost in the mind of the person with whom you are communicating.”
Create and publicize growth goals that your organization can only achieve by innovating.
Some leaders might wonder what they can do to motivate employees to create innovative products and services. Others might say that motivation comes from within. Either way, leaders are more effective when they set goals and let everybody in the organization know what they are. Setting specific organizational goals, along with a well crafted strategy, points the way for people who want to innovate. Well-designed goals help an organization know when progress is being made. General goals for organizations might involve safety, productivity, and customer satisfaction. Setting innovation goals may enable an organization to reach broader organizational goals.
Understand that innovation efforts are cumulative (to grow an organization, you will likely need more than one innovation).
The effect of an innovative idea may be small or large depending on the size of the opportunity. For organizations that intend to grow, more than one innovation may be necessary. If we suppose that every successful innovation increases customer satisfaction and the number of customers served, then increasing the number of innovative ideas should result in an increase in the number of customers. If we view each project individually, then we see that each project adds to the organizational growth. In general, the more ideas an organization implements, the more the organizational grows.
Remove organizational barriers to innovation.
A barrier to innovation may arise when key elements are missing from an organization’s innovation process. Key elements include: adequate funding, calculated risk taking, boundary-spanning culture, correct measures, scheduled innovation, innovation skills, long-term focus, reward/recognition system linked to innovation. Individuals may face barriers stemming from a fear of change, a lack of understanding of the need for innovation, defending personal “turf”, or concern for resource allocation. Communicating how the organization is dealing with potential barriers to innovation makes the elimination of the barriers easier.
Understand that innovation efforts are interactive.
Having multiple innovations at the same time increases growth in a cumulative way, another important reason for taking on more than one innovation is the synergy between innovation projects. For instance, a customer who benefits from one innovation project from the organization might be more willing to adopt new technology from a different project. Also, there are possible overlaps in resources, markets, or materials that would allow for an increase in effectiveness or an increase in efficiency across departmental boundaries. John W. Leikham, the director of R&D at P&G states, “We have an incredible ability to cross-fertilize our know-how and to make connections that create real synergies and opportunities to develop new markets in our existing businesses. This ‘web of interconnectivity’ has been a powerful engine of growth at P&G.” One possible organizational effect is that one innovation team might be encouraged by seeing the success of another innovation team. Because of potential synergy, an organization might see overall results that increase quickly. Multiple innovation projects allow an organization to get results that look like the results from disruptive innovation without the same level of risks.
As these tips suggest, increasing the awareness of innovation efforts is very important. This has to start at the top. Leadership experts suggest that over time, any organization becomes a mirror of the leader. If you want innovation in your organization, then demonstrating and communicating the importance of innovation is a great place to start.
About the Author:
Calvin Bacon is the Director of Creative Services at Wisepreneur.com. His areas of interest include idea generation and innovation management. ©Calvin M. Bacon, Jr. 2011
 Innovation to the Core, Peter Skarzynski & Rowan Gibson, 2008, Harvard Business Press, Boston.
 The Art of Innovation, Tom Kelley, 2001, Random House, New York.
 Executing Innovation, Kumar Nochur, 2009, Harvard Business, Boston.
 The Innovative Organization: Lessons Learned from Most Admired Companies, Hay Insight Selections, April 8, 2005.