January 13, 2023

Leadership: Choosing How and Where to Innovate

Shailja Sharma

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We live in a world in constant flux where change is inevitable. Change can create new problems for consumers and society that need to be solved. The needs that arise from these problems will then trigger innovation moments.  Learning to recognise these innovation moments and acting on them is one of the keys to successful leadership. Knowing the right time to pivot is critical. Companies that do not stay attuned to evolving customer needs will become obsolete. The ability to anticipate changes and recognize megatrends when they are still in their infancy and strategizing accordingly can help your company stay ahead of the curve and thrive.

Where Should you Innovate in your Company?

Business innovation can entail pioneering a process, product, or service in an industry. This can involve improving upon or completely redesigning the service or product. This can include creating new, more useful or additional features for products and services, or creating better systems for business organization and function. Innovation can help improve or create new revenue streams, grow customer bases, improve efficiency, and create novel solutions to emerging customer needs and wants.

Product and performance innovation can be customer-driven when consumers demand changes to features of a product to improve functionality, safety, and affordability or to meet a specific evolving need. Staying as close as possible to your consumers and understanding their evolving needs and wants better than they do themselves is the key to gaining the right insights to unlock impactful ideas for innovation. Other areas of consideration when building your strategy include technological innovation, network innovation, marketing and sales innovation and process innovation.

There are times when there are so many possibilities for innovation that it may be quite perplexing. So, what can you do to choose the right innovations to adopt? Distilling down to the key innovation moments that are worth your focus, resources, and energy can be approached in a structured way. First, you can revisit the company’s history and core mission. What does the company stand for? What is the unique value proposition? What are the unique capabilities of your organization that will allow it to outperform all its competitors and delight consumers now and in the future? What are your brand values and how does the company live its values? What are your core competencies? Where does your brand live in the minds of consumers?

These are important questions to consider. Indeed, adopting a radical innovation strategy that leaves behind the core business will confuse and maybe even anger consumers. Is your core business still profitable? Will it remain profitable in the future? If the answer is yes, think about what is required to take that core business to the next level. What new opportunities can you open up for your existing customer base and new customers? Think about how you can finance the proposed innovations. Do you have a budget that can accommodate these changes?

If your core business is becoming obsolete, you will be left limping behind competitors. History is replete with examples of companies that failed to innovate in time. Companies regularly define their overall business strategy but they rarely articulate strategies to align their innovation efforts with their business strategies. Good strategies promote alignment among diverse groups within an organization, clarify objectives and priorities and help focus efforts on understanding the business environment and how it is changing. Customer-centric companies that have their fingers on the pulse of market dynamics and trends will be able to anticipate changes in advance and pivot accordingly.

Lead Through Innovation

As a leader, you are the primary change-maker and you have to use your influence to bring others along with you on the journey. Change can be scary but if you learn to recognize the seeds of hidden opportunity, you can embrace change with confidence. You have the ability to lead and execute big ideas and make things happen. Leading innovation requires the type of leadership approach that shapes the cultural context and creates an environment where people feel safe and empowered to innovate. Innovation needs infrastructure and proper support. Give your staff permission to think outside the box.

Furthermore, there has to be alignment with the company’s vision and larger strategic objectives so that innovation efforts support company goals. Ensure that the team you have selected for ideation understands the overall company objectives and mission.  As a leader, you will need to articulate the proposed business case for innovation to all your employees in a compelling way to gain buy-in for execution. Show them how the changes fit into the bigger picture.

Bringing people along with you on a transformation journey is about effective communication. People must understand the why. You have to show them where the business is migrating to and the underlying drivers of the changes. Sharing research and data and becoming inclusive during strategy meetings is the first step to securing the buy-in of all your stakeholders. Allow people to ask questions and share their views. Encourage debate. When the questions become difficult to answer, you know that people are truly engaged and are thinking deeply. Additionally, sharing how the changes relate to your audience is helpful. People are always thinking about what benefits and drawbacks change will have on their own careers and futures. When they find their own why, people will mobilize and drive the necessary changes.

Finally, it is important to help people overcome their fear of failure. Change is uncomfortable. There are always risks when you start doing things differently and these risks can paralyze people. Creating the right environment where people have permission to fail is important. Showing personal vulnerability as a leader can help your followers become more comfortable with their own vulnerabilities and give them confidence to express themselves. Shift the focus to learning and growing from failures because losses are necessary for innovation. When you champion creativity, the inevitable losses lead to successes because the company is able to pivot and unlock new opportunities. Innovation is critical to surviving in these turbulent times, embrace it, engage others and enhance your company’s long-term future.

Article by Shailja Sharma, SBS Faculty Member and Leadership and Career Coach

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