Why Business Leaders Need To Forget About Innovation

What the £$^& is innovation?

Innovation’ ranks highly in Wikipedia’s list of buzzwords, and it is used widely in business, politics, and society.

While executives, politicians and educators all agree that innovation is key to the future, do people actually know what it means? How do we stop innovation from becoming an empty, meaningless word?

According to The Business Directory, innovation is “The process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value or for which customers will pay.”

The problem with this definition is that it suggests that every company that has ever generated revenue is innovative.

We know that’s not true.

The definition is missing a key word – “original”. It is only turning original ideas and inventions into products and services that can be described as innovative. If your idea is to copy the competition, you do not deserve the accolade.

Innovation has to start with one key ingredient – original ideas.

When an organisation has a culture that values and encourages people to have and share their ideas, it is far more likely to be labelled as “innovative”.

Rather than attempting to define innovation, or even outwardly strive for it, creating the conditions to encourage, capture, and reward excellent ideas is a far more likely catalyst for becoming an innovative organisation.

This article shows how to create an innovative organisation by focusing on a shared vision and the ability to capture ideas from everyone on the team.

Shared Vision

Simon Sinek’s TED talk, Start with why has been watched 4.5 million times for an excellent reason.

Great leaders drive creativity by shaping a vision that inspires their team.

When people have real clarity about where an organisation is heading and why it’s important, they will naturally start to think about the best possible way to get there. Quite simply, leaders should then just allow and encourage team-members to do this thinking at every opportunity.

Why your WHY will be a catalyst for innovation:

It will:

  • Bring meaning to the daily work of the team

  • Help people understand the need for them to think in an original way

  • Inspire the team to care about the organisation, develop ideas and get behind change

Innovation can come from anyone

“Innovation can come from anywhere, but you must be looking everywhere to find it.” (Braden Kelley)

If the ability to think creatively and see things differently is a gift we all have, innovative ideas can come from anyone on the team.

At this point, I should clarify; generating ideas and making the decision on which ideas to implement are two separate activities and leaders do not have to come up with everything.    

Industrial age organisational structures and our education systems have made us think that it is only the people at the top of a hierarchy who should be thinking about how to progress the business – this is wrong.

Creating an environment that encourages and captures original ideas fromeveryone on the team, regardless of their position in the team is essential.

The problem is that hierarchy is baked into every group situation because we evolved as a species to work this way. Hierarchies are useful when hunting and gathering, but not when ideating around complex problems in 2018. Even in a “flat” team structure there will be an unofficial hierarchy, which stops us from being creative when generating ideas in brainstorming sessions and meetings.

Hierarchy at the ideas stage in practice:

An intern can have a brilliant idea completely squashed simply because of their junior position. Similarly, ideas from the most senior or most qualified person can be put on a pedestal without question or challenge.

Hierarchy at the ideas stage of any collective thinking process is one of the biggest inhibitors of creativity – it stifles innovation.

How do we get around this?

Firstly, imposing a flat hierarchy does not have any impact, all groups of humans have a pecking order. The key is to use tools and techniques to neutralise hierarchy at the ideas stage of any problem solving or decision-making process. The following are good examples of how this can be achieved:

  • Clearly separate idea generation and decision making stages

  • Never describe ideas as crazy, stupid or pointless

  • Instead of brainstorming, get people to “brain dump” using Post-it notes then cluster them – this gets everyone thinking

  • Invite new people to contribute first

  • Invite junior people to contribute ideas before seniors

  • Generate ideas alone before coming together in the group to discuss

  • If facilitating an ideas workshop, keep a tally of who speaks when and ensure everyone gets a chance to contribute

  • Use software to capture and develop ideas whenever people have them


Final thoughts

Innovation plays a critical role in the growth, survival and success of businesses. However, with technology having such an impact on every aspect of our lives and systems, it is also crucial in the public sector and politics.

Frustratingly, the word innovation has been undermined by too many businesses who have used it as a label without making any real change to the culture of the organisation. Any team aspiring to be innovative needs to stop overusing the word and start focusing on how and where innovation is born; people.

When people are asked to generate ideas that are then listened to, this is the single best way to engage a team. Even if ideas are not taken forward, if team-members understand why they were not, they have still had an opportunity to make an impact.

When people see their ideas taken seriously and sometimes actioned, it is excellent for morale and they will be more likely to come forward with other ideas in the future. So create a shared vision and set the conditions to encourage, capture, and recognise original ideas. It is a far more likely catalyst for innovation than standing around attempting to define it.

Jonny Andrews