Zoe Aitken26 October 2018

What leaders of the world’s most innovative companies do differently

Have you ever noticed how some organisational leaders thrive in the face of change and disruption, while others somehow manage to lead their company into an abyss of irrelevance? (Did someone say ‘Kodak’?).

There’s a whole lot of factors that can contribute to a company’s success or failure, but we know two things for sure; that leadership plays a critical role and so does innovation. So how can leaders set their company up for success when it comes to innovation? And specifically what can they do to ensure their innovation thrives, in today’s times of rapid change.

Fortunately for us, there’s been a heap of convincing research on this very topic…

Clayton Christensen, the godfather of Disruptive Innovation, conducted a 6-year study, where he explored the habits of 25 innovative entrepreneurs, surveyed more than 3,000 executives and 500 individuals, in order to identify some of the most common habits of leaders of the most innovative companies.

The key finding from Christensen’s study was that leaders of the most innovative companies don’t delegate innovation.

Instead, they roll up their sleeves and get involved. They are actively out in the thick of it, observing their customers, speaking with employees at all levels of the organisation, challenging the status quo and experimenting with different ideas. They know what’s going on in their organisation and they know the challenges that need solving. Christensen and his colleagues commented that:

“Innovative entrepreneurship is not a genetic predisposition, but rather it is an active endeavor. Innovators must consistently act different to think different”.

So in other words, you can’t be an effective innovator from behind your desk. And your behaviour as a leader sets the tone for how the entire organisation approaches innovation. Getting involved not only reinforces its importance, but it also helps to ignite a curiosity and creative spark in everyone else.

So if you are a leader yourself, think about how involved you get in innovation in your organisation. Think about whether you could be more hands-on. If the answer is ‘yes’, then here are a few simple ways that you can play a more active role in driving innovation:

1. Observe your customers

How many times have you observed your customers interacting with your products or services? This can be such a valuable exercise for picking up on any frustrations or clues to potential problems worth solving with innovation. In your observations, look out for any surprising behaviours, things you weren’t expecting, or obvious signs of frustration. Then make a note and explore whether these could lead to business opportunities.

2. Talk to diverse sets of people

There has been a significant amount of research into the positive effects of exposure to diverse amounts of information on creativity and innovation; so go wide with your interactions. Speak with people at all levels of the business and across different geographies, hear their ideas and understand what’s working and what isn’t. Connect with people across different industries and organisations, attend conferences and industry forums to discuss and refine your ideas.

3. Experiment with your ideas

Experiments are a low-cost and fast way to explore the merits of an idea. They are all about getting your ideas in front of real customers (whoever they are intended for) and testing actual behaviour. They help to re-risk your ideas and ensure that they are creating value in the way you intended. And they provide valuable feedback to refine and iterate your ideas before you throw significant investment at them.

These are just a few ways to get more hands-on with innovation in your organisation. The main thing is that you get involved because remember, innovation is an ‘active endeavour’. There are likely a million potential opportunities for innovation, but I can be pretty confident that none of them will be found within the four walls of your office. So get out there!

If you want to chat more about what I’ve written then feel free to drop me a line at zoe@inventium.com.au.

And you can also read more about Clayton Christenson’s study into innovative entrepreneurs here.


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