The role senior executives must fill for innovation success

Executive need to engage for innovation 1Jeffrey Phillips of Ovo Innovation and I wrote a White Paper, we called our foundation document, on “Accelerating or inhibiting innovation – understand your role for innovation success”. You can read the full paper here

We strongly believe there is a real Innovation leadership gap

My last article “Developing talent to drive innovation” was questioning the spending of new funds on developing talent for innovation, unless the organization and its leadership is not clear on what it is specifically looking for, or how it is prepared to back their words with specific actions beyond ‘just’ new funding levels, then this might not be money well spent.

Developing talent for innovation requires commitment across a whole range of structure, creating conditions, adapting or designing new systems, processes and providing clear governance. Senior executives need to understand innovation is often far more frustrating than most executives imagine it to be and a awful lot of hard work. Innovation is very demanding but the rewards can be spectacular in new growth, improved earning and organizations ‘sense of pride and identification’.

There are no best practice solutions to fall back on for your specific organizations to seed and cultivate innovation, a trap many fall into. You don’t switch innovation on or off to meet short term needs, it is certainly not faddish, innovation is simply, a or the, core driver of growth, future performance and your valuation barometer.

The innovation buck in responsibility for innovation is firmly at the top.

The buck stops here 1The innovation buck stops at the top, it will not work in just being ‘pushed down’ the organization. It is the role senior executives  must fill for achieving a greater innovation success.

If the leadership of the organization fail to formally integrate innovation into the core of any strategic- management agenda where it ‘constantly runs through’ the decision making process innovation will remain disappointing in its impact. Our leaders need to explicitly lead and manage, they need to close the gap between aspiration and execution where everyone up and down the organization can feel more confident that innovation is a core focus and needs developing.

It is against this clear observation from our and many others research initiatives, that the place to focus is getting the leadership to fully understand their key role and engage in innovation, to make it a central core to their own destiny, in top and bottom results.

So our opening thoughts in the white paper on this leadership void.

Here’s a vital question to answer that will make a difference to your organization’s survival: which individual in your organization is most important for innovation success? Many people will argue it is the most creative person in the company, the individual with the best ideas. Others will argue that it is the person who can make the idea a reality.

Perhaps these answers are true in entrepreneurial companies or very small firms, but these responses aren’t true in larger organizations. In larger organizations we believe the CEO or another empowered senior executive is the most important person for innovation success, since they have the ability to:

  • link innovation to strategy, and
  • create focus, engagement and passion for innovation, and
  • direct funds and resources to good innovation programs, and
  • speed good ideas to market as new business models, products and services, and
  •  ensure the processes and metrics exist so innovation is sustainable.

In mid-sized and large companies, leadership and engagement from CEOs and senior executives are vital to innovation success. What’s more, these leaders want innovation to happen, more consistently, more purposefully and with better result.

Not only do CEOs and executives want innovation, they demand innovation to drive organic growth, profits and create differentiation. We know this because you’ve made it clear. In survey after survey the vast majority of CEOs report that innovation is one of their top three priorities. Yet the gap between “saying and doing” indicates a gap between vision and implementation. The consequences of this gap are significant:

  • Poor execution of innovation goals
  • Failure to achieve strategic goals
  • Limited organizational design to sustain innovation
  • The growth of disbelief or cynicism when innovation isn’t pursued.

We also believe CEOs and senior executives play a vital role in the success or failure of innovation.

Unfortunately, those roles haven’t been well-defined. Since the roles are poorly defined, they are rarely well executed. It’s not enough for executives simply to demand more innovation – senior executives must demonstrate links between corporate strategy and the work of innovation, between their vision and the activities necessary to create new products and services and between their expectations and the actual culture of the organization.

Executives fail to fill this vital role when they:

  • are unaware of the role,
  • don’t understand the importance of their role,
  • delegate the role to others who don’t have the power to execute the role, or
  • under-perform in the role.

Understanding the importance of innovation, and the barriers that innovation will encounter, helps define key activities an innovation senior executive must undertake, and what he or she must do to fill the role effectively. This leads to an important question: if innovation is strategically important, and if engaged senior executives are critical to innovation success, what keeps executives from filling the role effectively?

There are a number of reasons why executives have difficulty filling an innovation leadership role,including:

Quilter Beths textile art

  • Lack of innovation experience
    • Concern about short-term financial reporting goals
    • Difficulty managing “important” versus “urgent” tasks
    • Difficulty converting their vision into reality
    • Lack trusted innovation tools and frameworks
    • Unaware of the level of resistance and inertia
    • Concerned about upsetting the status quo

Many senior executives lack innovation experience. They often move into their positions through excellent financial management, cost cutting or other demonstrated operational successes. Thus, they lack innovation experience and are unfamiliar with its methodologies, tools and frameworks and often have few trusted sources for well-tested methods and insights.

Innovation is especially challenging because it is so unfamiliar, so potentially disruptive and yet so important. Innovation requires change that can impact the status quo and disrupt the firm’s ability to achieve short-term financial goals. Only an engaged, committed senior executive can create a sustained innovation capability or discipline, yet many lack experience, tools and awareness of the importance of the role.

The seven essential capabilities for innovation leadership

Understanding the innovation environment critical to innovation success led us to identify seven essential capabilities that senior executives must provide in order to fill those roles effectively. These relate to skills, capabilities and the capacities for innovation to thrive.

These include:

source: studio foundation spring 2009

  • creating alignment,
  • deploying trusted methods and tools,
  • effective communication and engagement,
  • empowering people, providing skills,
  • refocusing attitudes, perspectives and rewards ,
  • defining a corporate “governance” for innovation

Leaders can drive innovation through thoughtfully designing the strategic innovation framework.

This initial White Paper became the prelude to the Executive Innovation Work Mat. The Work Mat, which provides a unique examination of the executive’s role in innovation, it helps executives understand the vital role they must play for innovation to succeed, and provide a framework that companies can adopt to ensure linkages between strategy and innovation, innovation and capabilities, innovation and culture.

More can be read on this website to extend your understanding of the work mat, for example.

For innovation to really take hold and become a sustaining and systematic function, it is for the leadership of our organizations to become strategically engaged, by providing the framework, the guidance, the direction and necessary top management commitment to ‘make this happen.’

Lastly leaders in organizations, big or small, need a lot of help in working all of the implications through, believe me……and many others fed up with leaders disappointment when they fail to fully engage in strategic framing approaches and making the time and the commitments themselves !

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