The Innovation Imperative: Four Things to Foster Innovation in Organizations

This post is an adaptation of remarks given at the International Pet Food Forum at an event hosted by Diana Pet Food

The forces of change surround us and are unrelenting. Back in 1965, Moore predicted that computing power would exponentially increase. Almost 60 years later that still holds true. Fiber optics allow us to move data at amazing speeds and the cost of storage has plummeted from a cool $300K for 1 gig in 1980, to virtually free today. In addition to the accelerating power of the internet, we see an explosion in the speed of change. It may be driven by technology but it touches all that we do.

So we find ourselves in an environment in which disruption is the steady state. All you must do is flip through your smart phone to see the casualties. Go to a movie theater? No just stream it. Buy a video camera? No thanks – I have my phone. Buy a flashlight for an emergency? Nope, just have your phone handy. If you were a flashlight manufacturer not that long ago, would you have guessed that AT&T and Apple were going to be competitive threats?

This it is NOT business as usual.

Examples abound. We know that 88% of the companies on the Fortune 500 list in 1955 no longer exist today: Blockbuster, Kodak, Borders, Sears (Sear’s Tower – the original mail order biz), Blackberry and more. 50 years ago, if you made it onto the Fortune 500 list, you were likely to stay there for 75 years. Now the average duration is 15 years and declining. And the big players today – Google, Uber and Facebook are barely teenagers in a human lifespan, yet they dominate.

The differentiator – an imperative to INNOVATE.

A quick look at Fast Companies Most Innovative Companies of 201list tells the tale.  The most innovative companies are also disproportionately the most profitable, the fastest growing, and the most likely to bump out a longstanding company from the Fortune 500 list. Leading the pack: Apple, followed by Netflix, Square, Amazon, Patagonia, CVS and Spotify. Certainly an interesting mix – with one common denominator: innovation as a core competency.

Today the race is being won by those who can rethink the market, ride these forces of exponential change – and create something nimble, agile, and adaptable. And in today’s world – that equates to sustainability. Blockbuster went bust – but Netflix is killing it. Borders is boarded up- but Amazon, which started as a book seller, now allows anyone to set up a storefront and sell virtually anything. Amazon Web Services, which grew out of the company’s own e-commerce infrastructure needs, has become a $13 billion business.

In the Industrial Era, organizations of the late 1800’s  through the 20th century, bigger was better. Stability was key. Companies competed by sheer size – the goal was to crush their competition. Bureaucracy flourished. Org charts calcified the organization into neat little boxes and standardization, consistency and minimizing disruption were the primary focus.

And now, here we are. In an entirely new world. We are in an age where our industrial era organizations simply don’t work. Where we need new models, new skills and new ways of working. Where small and nimble is a competitive advantage. Where tried and true products are passé. Where speed matters. Where it’s imperative to innovate.

Now, innovation is a HUGE topic – and a deep one. So for this post I’d like to share with you four ways organizations are fostering innovation.

Top performing organizations in the 21st century:

  • Treat innovation as a business process
  • Foster the skill of creativity
  • Connect with their customers
  •  Collaborate

Each of these are big topics, so for the sake of brevity I’ll provide a brief description and some questions to consider for each.

Innovation as a Business Process.

There is a process to innovation, in spite of the belief by some that innovating is a “loosey goosey” thing somebody does in R&D. Just ask IDEO. Smart companies know the process and incorporate it into all the other processes we know so well: Finance, Accounting, HR, Sales…  Innovation is not isolated nor the sole function of the forgotten folks in R&D. It is embedded in the organization, provided resources and a path from innovation to production.

We can no longer afford to sort the world into the “business types” (think rational, linear, predictable) and the “creatives” (think intuitive, edgy, and free flowing). Innovative companies don’t exhort their employees to innovate; they have structures in place, resources identified, and processes to follow. Just as accounting, HR, engineering and operations are defined – so can innovation.

You might ask:

  • Where does innovation happen in your company (if at all)?
  • Are there dedicated resources for innovation?
  • Who is your company is charged to innovate?
  • What was the last innovation your company implemented?
  • What is in your innovation pipeline?

CREATIVITY AS A SKILL

It took me 5 long years to get my MBA at the Krannert School of Management. I spent 14 years in a Fortune 200 company. And at no time in no way did the notion of creating something important in business get much attention. It was not taught, even though it is a process that can be taught. It was not encouraged, measured, or rewarded.

I think that we’d all agree that the many business geniuses are terribly creative – from Henry Ford to Steve Jobs to Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos. Our problem is not embracing creativity at the top. The problem is that we’ve driven creativity out of the middle ranks by such a strong focus on left-brained business management. Management by the numbers and a sole focus on short-term financials. We’re out of balance. We need to find ways to balance the creative with the effective management – and do it quickly.

We need to think of creativity as a business skill needed throughout the organization. Skills that are used every day by everyone, not just at the top. Not just when we are in crisis. Not just the folks in the R&D department. We need to learn the process of creating and create organizational structures that foster creativity. Period.

You might ask:

  • Who is charged to be creative in your organization?
  • Are the skills of creativity seen as a core competency? Taught? Supported?
  • What happens when creative ideas emerge?
  • Are there process in place to:
    • Generate many ideas, rather than a few
    • Test those ideas in the market
    • Vet those ideas thoroughly
    • Move the best ideas into your day-to-day operations
  • Diversity fuels creativity. How are diverse people, ideas, cultures and perspectives encouraged?
  • Creativity requires space, time, and freedom to dream. Is your organization so focused on productivity that there is no time to create?

CONNECT

It seems that the more high tech we become, the more high touch we crave. One size does not fit all any longer. Consumers want personalized. They want to be understood. To be connected with on an emotional level.

In all areas of business today – connecting with those that we provide goods and services to is critical. The creativity needed in today’s business world is not random, not just “edgy” for the sake of “edginess” – but creative innovations that speak to a need. It is not creativity for the sake of creating alone – but creating based on connection with your current customers, your future customers, and perhaps customers you can’t even imagine right now.

Great questions to ask about your ability to connect include:

  • How often do you interact with the people that use your goods and services?
  • Is that time spent merely trying to sell them (or service) what you already have or is it talking and listening and observing what they need?
  • How much do you use human centered design in your organization?
  • To what extent do you focus on your WHY rather than your features and benefits?
  • People connect emotionally. To what extent do you communicate and connect emotionally as well as rationally?
  • How “whole brained” are you? Do you rely on sheer left-brain (logical/rational/linear) or also use right-brained thinking (intuitive/non-linear/emergent).

COLLABORATE

If you recall, I mentioned that competition was the order of the day in industrial era organizations. As I worked for 13 + years in a Fortune 200 company – collaboration was at best frowned upon, and most often discouraged. It was discouraged both inside and outside the organization for fear of giving up information or ideas, or perhaps enabling someone else to take advantage of us or do better than us. Go to a conference? No way – we have training inside! Invite other departments to help solve a problem? No way – it will signal that we don’t have all the answers. Collaborate with a sister division with a new customer? Unheard of – what if their numbers are better than ours.

Now in hindsight, it seems a bit ridiculous. But it was real. And it IS real. In so many of the organizations I work with, people are tightly bound into their functional “silos”. Unable to see across the company as a bigger picture. Each functional area only out for the benefit of their own. Truly the parts more important than the whole.

21st century organizations know that even if they could be self-sustaining, that doing so would take way too long and would take too many resources. They know that knowledge is growing so quickly that they can’t be an expert in it all – so they find ways to collaborate with the expertise they need.

Emerging Networks

Networks are emerging much like the way we organize ourselves – a bit messier, a lot less linear, and a whole lot more powerful. A great case study is Airbnb, who has taken collaboration to an entirely new level. Tech innovation and the power of networks has propelled Airbnb to surpass the valuation of Hilton and Hyatt COMBINED. That valuation in spite of the fact that Airbnb owns no property or real estate. Airbnb’s valuation is based on its ability to innovate, its network, and its ability to connect with people who either have space to rent or need to rent space.

Questions about Collaboration

Collaboration fuels new ideas and it requires diversity. Collaboration can share the costs and rewards of bringing new products and services to market, yet requires discarding our ego’s desire to know it all and control it all. Collaboration can provide us quick access to resources and as such, shortens the time to do something innovative. But it also requires us to leave behind some of our old thinking about competition, control and certainty.

Some questions to ponder about collaboration:

  • Are employees in your organization encouraged to interact and collaborate across functions?
  • To what extent are employees encouraged to get outside the walls of the business and forge relationships with those outside?
  • Are there strategic partners you collaborate with?
  • How much internal competition exists? Within departments? Across departments and functional units?
  • How is collaboration nurtured? Supported? Encouraged?

Responding to today’s environment requires us to think about business in a different light. Where innovation exists alongside optimization. Where business skills and thinking are a blend of left and right brained activity. Where we get comfortable with the joy of creating, the emotion of connecting, and the powerful output of networks and collaborations.

These forces of change are not abating any time soon, so we are faced with the imperative choice to innovate or to stagnate. To change or die.

I know what side I’m on!

Five Networks Every Leader Needs

As I speak to leadership groups and mention the value of networking, I invariably get a brave soul or two who raises their hands to make these points:

  • I’m an introvert. HELP!
  • I hate networking events. They seem like a waste of time. You meet a lot of people, none of whom remember you for more than a millisecond.
  • Networking just seems like a way to promote yourself and get others to do things for you.
  • I have lots of work to do. I don’t have time for this stuff.

And I remember the time I thought the same thoughts and had the same questions. And how, over time, I’ve done a complete shift in how I view networking and my own network. For I now know:

  • That my network is one of my most valuable assets
  • That your network either pulls you up or keeps you down
  • That networks are about reciprocity, about giving as much as receiving

The Impact of Networks

Proof positive: When I began consulting in 2004, my network was weak. Perhaps even pathetic. 50 names. Mostly from the employer I has spent the last 13 years with. Some of whom I was not certain they would remember me. Not a great way to start.

Yet over time, I have an amazing network. It is wide and deep and filled with the most amazing people. To get to that point, I had to learn the art of networking and creating professional relationships that are not prescribed and defined by an organization chart. I had to figure out how to connect with people who would meet with me, help me, work with me and refer me because they wanted to, not because their boss said they had to.

In today’s hyper-connected and fast changing world leaders need deep and rich networks. Inside and outside of their organization. To stay abreast of new trends. To meet the people who can help them with a problem or a project. To find top talent. To stay current. To work cross-functionally. To work creatively. And ultimately to do better work, to access resources, to learn, to grow and to be a better person.

Making the Right Connections

But you need to know that networking is a two way street. You give before you receive. You share and others will share in return. You teach and others will teach you what they can. You support and others will support you.

It is true that what you give, you also receive. Not one for one. But in a bigger, more wondrous way.

And I’ve found that the more successful the person, the more likely they are to ask what they can do for me. And believe me, it’s not an aberration – it happens time and time and time again.

I’ve also learned that powerful networks don’t just happen. They take time. They take effort. And they take some strategic focus. In this post, I’d like help you build a network as rich as the one I have.

Yet your network should not be measured by how many contacts you have, how many business cards are stacked on your desk or how many LinkedIn connections you’ve amassed.

It is measured by how many of the RIGHT connections you make and your skill at making those connections valuable, for the other person and then for you. Now you might think that the RIGHT connections are those with potential clients or customers or the “right” people who will promote you in your organization. In reality, the most vibrant networks have different people in them.

The Five Networks that Leaders Need

Let me share the five categories of people you want in your network:

  1. Connectors – There are people in this world who love nothing better than connecting the right people together. They have a wide network. They have an intuition that tells them that you need to meet person “X”. They love to make introductions. Pay attention when they connect you with someone – they most likely are right! And know who they are so that when you are wondering “Who can help me with this?” – your connectors know exactly who you should reach out
  2. Advocates – Everyone needs people in their network that sing their praises. Who know what you do (or your team or company) and are witness to how well you do it. Who can be called on to be a reference for you, but who also spontaneously let’s others know they really need to talk to you because you are fabulous at what you do. Treasure these folks! And be an advocate for others.
  3. Allies – You’ll want to have a network that includes people who support the work you do and at times even want to work with you. They may have similar or complementary skills. They often share your world view and can help you advance the work you are undertaking. These are people you love to do work with.
  4. Supporters – These are the folks who raise you up; your rainy day friends and colleagues. They affirm you and support you emotionally. They provide unconditional positive regard. They cheer you on. And since leadership can be a lonely endeavor, you’ll want a few supporters on your side.
  5. Challengers – As opposed to your supporters, challengers cause you to think differently and deeper and better. They call you out. They provide unvarnished, but helpful feedback. They often are ahead of you in some way – and they encourage you to come up to the place they are. They can challenge your professionally or personally. But they raise the bar for you and cause discomfort – the kind that comes with growth. It’s easy to dismiss or avoid them. Instead treasure them – as they do what so few others have the courage to do.

A rich network that works for you will have a mix of all five categories. And not in equal measure, as advocates are most likely rarer (yet often more valuable).  And there are not neat little boxes. At times someone might challenge you mightily and then be your best working partner as an ally.

What is the Strength of Your Network?

In evaluating the strength of your network ask:

  • In what ways am I showing up for those in my network? Am I willing to advocate? Connect? Support? Challenge?
  • What is the mix of individuals I have in my active network? Am I missing some categories?
  • Am I spending too much time in my comfort zone (most likely supporters or allies)?
  • What can I do to build my network? To reach out? To help someone else?

Thinking about your network with this lens answers ALL the objections I listed at the beginning of this post:

  • One does not have to be an introvert to cultivate these relationships, for they are neither superficial nor totally social.
  • These networks are not developed at networking events; they are nurtured one action at a time.
  • The strength of your network is more about what you do for others, rather than what they do for you. It is about giving and knowing that others will give, when needed or asked, in return.
  • We all need advocates and connectors. You may do great work – but it won’t go farther than that if no one knows.

Leadership today is about connection – and collaboration – and networks. There are no great “stand alone” leaders. If you are going to reach your goals, you need a network – and with most things of value, that takes time.

If you want to enhance strong and deep relationships within your leadership team, talk to us about our leadership circles which do this by design (in addition to developing relevant leadership skills). We also custom design and facilitate leadership retreats where deep connections can be formed.

 

Why Embracing Failure is the Wrong Message

Face it: Failure stinks. No one I know likes it. And even the most successful and creative people I know, don’t celebrate things that turned out poorly.

Yet a mantra that has emerged in the last five years is to “celebrate” failure. Really? Celebrate?

While I get, on some level, the reasoning to encourage people to take a risk and actually “do something” – the notion of celebrating failure is not, what I believe, is in anyone’s best interest.

Learn about other behaviors that are detrimental to organizations, and discover what healthy behaviors your organization should consider adding.

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In thinking about that energy and momentum as “heat” generated by a “fire”, I recalled that fire takes three elements: Fuel, Oxygen and a source of Heat.

In this article, learn what your team’s Fuel, Oxygen, and source of Heat are, and discover why you should keep your team burning – but not too hot.”

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I’ve worked with great leaders, mediocre leaders and one or two really poor leaders. In reflecting back, I realized the really great leaders gave me many great gifts.

 

These are gifts that last over time. They aren’t very tangible but are always present. They are gifts that altered the way I saw myself, or my situation, or the world around me. I am eternally blessed by and grateful for these gifts.

Want to know what these gifts are? Read my latest blog post, and see my challenge for you.

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Need a New Planning System for 2018? Mine Might Inspire You to Create Your Own.

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I believe many of us are searching for some “magic” – the one system that provides us focus, keeps us organized and helps us achieve all that we set out to do. And there are more than enough people who will claim they have the system for you. Many times they are expensive and complicated.

My system has evolved over time and is a bit non-traditional. Yet, it works for me and it has enabled me to get and stay focused on the most important things, to track progress and to guide my activities over time.

I truly believe that no one size fits all. I’ve seen others do really well with other systems that when I tried them, left me uninspired, overwhelmed and doomed to fail.  I’m not suggesting this will work for everyone. But I do suspect that you might do as I did, experiment with one of two of the elements and see if they work for you. If they do, great. If not, it was only an experiment.

Keep reading to learn more about my planning system for 2018 and how you can adapt and experiment with it to have a focused and fulfilling year!

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A Simple Daily Practice That Can Change Your Life

In this week of Thanksgiving, I want to share a practice that I began long ago. It has dramatically improved my mood, my well-being and my life and takes less than 10 minutes a day and requires less than $10 in materials. The most challenging part of the practice is that it requires practice. You must work at having the discipline to do it day in and day out, regardless of your state of mind, your fatigue, or your busyness.

Keep reading to learn about what this practice is and the scientific benefits that come with cultivating the mindset associated with it.

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Self-Care or Self-Obsession? How to know when you’ve stepped over the line.

It’s taken me an entire lifetime to internalize and act on the notion that taking care of myself was not as selfish at it appeared on the surface. I’ve had to experience, both personally and vicariously, the detrimental effect of self-neglect – when energy was sapped, spirit was wounded, and health was jeopardized.

Keep reading to learn about why self-care is so important and how I differentiate self-care from self-obsession.

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Creative Organizations Do These 3 Things Well

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Creative organizations are a culmination of the right actions at these three levels:

– A creativity nurturing culture
– Leaders who encourage creativity
– Individuals with the skill and the will to create.

In today’s post, I’m going to share some actions you can take at all three levels to encourage, support and reap the rewards of creativity in their organizations.

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The creative process is truly a process. Whether creating a symphony, a piece of art, a new product or service or an organizational initiative; both the artist, the entrepreneur and the corporate leader take the same steps. That path from idea to implementation is a long and arduous one. A journey worth taking, but one that Is not for the faint of heart.

I’ve articulated six steps in the creative process – and this process is the same if you are creating art or creating a new business. In this post, I’ll articulate those steps followed by a simple explanation. A very simple explanation! The goal today is to provide an overview of the process – in later posts we’ll do deeper dives.

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