In the age of digital disruption, the ability to be innovative is crucial for every incumbent. Changes are happening fast, and incumbent business models are challenged from every direction. No matter the resources allocated to innovation, supporting structures and conditions for innovation, the ability to innovate boils down to the competence and talent in the organization.
Organizations that are successful at innovation naturally develop a strong innovation culture, and the default reaction from most incumbents upon this realization is to attempt to establish a culture for innovation. However, in able to innovate, merely having a culture for innovation is not sufficient. This merely acts as a minimum requirement. Secondly, one does not decide to establish a culture for innovation. This comes as a result of having the right talent onboard.
Innovation is in most cases dependent of having at least one internal champion. That person who is able to look beyond the next quarterly result and refuse to accept status quo. This is rare talent, and the defining trait of a true innovator is not their creativity, but their resilience.
No matter how brilliant your idea might be, inertia will dominate every organization decision process, and you will face resistance along the way. If you as an innovator venture to change this inherent aspect of the organization, you will fail. In order to lead innovation, you must accept this as an immutable fact and develop the necessary skills to overcome organizational resistance to change.
How do you get the necessary funding? Innovation is by nature unpredictable, and is therefore often not rarely in any budgets. Don’t expect to get a free pass to innovate. Getting the necessary means to implement any innovation requires a precise proposal based on facts and insight. What business problem are you trying to solve, and what will it take in terms of resources and organizational dependencies. Since innovation is uncharted waters, be prepared to get the internal funding in several portions. Be prepared to dismiss your idea after the initial rounds of internal funding if you discover insights that falsify the original hypothesis. At the same time, remember that many of the necessary stakeholders will actively look for proof to shut down the idea. Not out of bad intent, but as a natural reaction to resist change. If you expect to sit idle by until someone hands you some cash and tell you to start innovating, you should probably reconsider your role. An innovation champions is willing to fight for the means to implement their idea.
Who gets to be innovative? In many organizations, most people want to be affiliated with innovation, but is not ready to do the work. A good innovator is rarely appointed a clear defined role with a standing order to innovate. Even for those lucky enough to have such a role, it will always be vaguely defined and you should be prepared to constantly prove your value either by implementing a new innovation, educating your organization or gathering insights on your surroundings. An innovation champion needs interdisciplinary understanding and a good portion of street smartness. An innovation champion always looks for new angles and is quick to pick up the pieces and move on to the next field when an idea is rejected. If you expect to wait and be told what to do and get discouraged by resistance, you should again probably reconsider your role.
Do you have the right sponsors for your idea? Your greatest supporter may be your worst enemy and vice versa. To drive innovation, it is crucial to have sponsors at a decision-making level. Good ideas are often the victims of suffocating too far down in the organization, and at the same time bad ideas receive artificial respiration due to group think in one department. Knowing who to involve is crucial for innovation success. Often will skeptics provide valuable questions to validate your idea at the same time as friends will reinforce a bad idea in fear of disappointing you. Sometimes the right sponsor is the one who is most skeptical towards your idea. Be prepared to let someone else take the credit to see your idea implemented.
Bear in mind that this is not a one-time exercise, but will be necessary every time you propose and attempt to implement a new idea. Innovation is an uphill battle, and you must prepare to overcome both trip wires and take some punches along the way. As one of our modern-day scholars put it It’s a long way to the top (if you wanna rock ‘n roll).