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Innovation: are you picking up the signals?

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Take a moment and think about what the word innovation means to you. Does it conjure up thoughts of ground-breaking new ideas, disruptive technologies and examples of the latest, ground-breaking tech-entrepreneur?

Often, innovation is viewed through the narrow context of technology, and the subsequent advances in our lifestyles and businesses. But what if we’re missing something by correlating innovation too closely with technology. Shouldn’t innovation occupy a wider meaning and role? And if so, how do leaders ensure that ‘innovation’ is a red thread that runs through the culture of their organisations?

Professor Stylianos Kavadias

Professor Stylianos Kavadias

Professor Stelios Kavadias of Cambridge Judge Business School recently addressed these questions in his ‘Making Innovation Happen’ webinar. “It’s become the norm that we think about innovation as an ‘input’ with a high tech ‘output’. But it’s much more than this, it’s related to new ideas and a new way of doing things; it’s definitely not all based on complexity or new technology” he says. In fact, innovation can be a new way of doing things within an established, ‘traditional’ paradigm. Put another way, you can have innovation without the constraint of technology.”

Stelios adds: “We are creating an ‘excuse landscape’ around our businesses. Too often we fall in to the trap of saying we don’t have access to a certain technology, therefore we’re out of the innovation game. It’s not true, innovation can come in many guises and can spring out of the most constrained, unlikely places.”

So what are some of the biggest blocks when it comes to innovation? And what can senior leaders do to start unlocking innovation within their organisations?

Innovation blocks

In addition to the ‘excuse landscape’ there a number of common fears and barriers that put the brakes on innovation within our organisations. The fear of failure, a risk averse senior management, a fear of sharing ideas or a mismatch between company vision and company leadership.

Stelios comments: “There can be a misalignment between strategic direction, new ideas and management execution practices. There is a real need for companies to self-reflect on their own behaviours and look at where they are encouraging or creating barriers to innovation.”

The bi-polar challenge

The key question for business is, can we systematically continue to deliver the core business whilst creating an environment that fosters innovation?; this is the tricky balance at the heart of businesses seeking more innovative practices. Stelios comments, “leaders need to find a way to continually deliver systematic and methodical results for their business whilst generating new ideas”. There are real challenges here for business leaders which Stelios describes as the ‘Bi-Polar Challenge’, he adds: “on the one hand businesses have to focus on the key drivers of scale; efficiency, repetition, process and hierarchy whilst also getting comfortable with ‘wasted efforts’ associated with searching for new ideas and taking risks”. Stelios proposes that embedding innovation can be seen as a process of ‘self-destruction’ with ‘self-undermining’ results, meaning a company needs to commit time and resources to self-reflection, playing with new ideas and taking risks. It’s here where business can become unstuck, but it’s also where businesses can learn a lot from the research and those who’ve successfully juggled the demands of scale, stability and innovation.

Finding your framework

From years of research and collaboration within innovative businesses, Stelios suggests the first step towards success is to create a dedicated innovation function with a framework that fosters new ideas and innovation. Stelios balance’s this advice with the caveat that there is not a ‘one size fits all’ framework here, rather a group of principals from which business can build their own framework that suits their business model and culture. One such principal is the need to build a network that transfers and shares information openly within an organisation. Networks within businesses are pivotal to the sharing of ideas but are also crucial when it comes to picking the ‘good’ ideas and investing in them. Stelios adds “ideas are like signals and signals can get weakened or strengthened within a network”.

There’s a powerful message here for senior leaders as the success of these networks largely comes down to how they are managed. If senior managers are effective at identifying ideas and exploring them then innovation will start to blossom, but if the opposite is true and managers either don’t have the time, inclination or ability to support the network then the innovation project will quickly wither on the vine.

So a couple of starting questions for any senior leader looking to innovate should be how healthy are your information networks and how good are you at picking up the signals?