The Innovation Leader in an Organisation

Not long ago, innovation was an under-the-radar business activity. Few organisations were relying on innovation to keep them relevant and growing. In recent times, this has changed with the speed of disruption, shifts in consumer expectations, rising costs for organisations (especially public sector organisations), erosion of barriers to entry and a vibrant startup movement have propelled innovation from the background to a position as one of the most important activities for any growth-minded organisations.

Innovation is too big to be random any more, organisations must act. Innovation is also a word that is thrown around lightly. In my presentation ‘Thinking Lean with Innovation’ I break down the meanings of innovation:

  1. Innovation — Creation of a new viable business offering. Inventions are not the same as innovation as innovation must have a return on investment.
  2. Innovating — Identifying problems that matter and creating top notch solutions to solve the problems.

As an organisation, you are either creating innovations or innovating and for that to succeed — you need an effective individual leading the innovation projects — ‘Chief Innovation Officer’.

The innovation leader is a multi-skilled individual whose role is to constantly “bang the drum” for innovation, being essentially responsible for identifying and proposing areas where new ideas, new mindsets, new products, company structure and day-to-day practices can be combined and refined to drive a business towards its corporate goals.Their aim is to create the environment that values, allows and enables innovators to operate effectively.

Organisations in US and other parts of the world have hired Chief Innovation Officers/Innovation Leads for a while, in the UK it is still fairly new. Some may think it is a fancy position to have in an executive leadership team, some agree and believe that in this era, organisations need someone who effectively helps them not to end up like Blockbuster or Kodak as a result innovation executives have been highly sought after.

Let’s break down the roles of the Innovation Leader:

  1. He/She must be strategically aware and able to operate tactically in the short-term, but be equally comfortable in long-term strategic planning.
  2. He/She pushes for ideas and insights; strategic innovation; promotes open innovation; and introduces group tools and processes that encourage creative thinking.
  3. He/She must lead in the training of the organisation’s personnel on the skills they need, developing and applying measures to track improvements in innovation.
  4. He/she will support business units in new product and service initiatives. This means acting as the methodology expert and facilitator across the company.
  5. He/She will identify new markets — analyzing trends and market disruptions and searching for emerging new market opportunities.
  6. He/She will need to lobby the executive board to allocate funding for innovation projects. They will need to own and allocate a yearly budget similar to Head of IT departments, marketing departments in an organisation. This provides an the facility to nourish and protect new ideas.
  7. He/She will need to lead a dedicated team of people who prioritise innovation in an organisation. People who will explore ideas without immediately seeing reasons why it can’t be done.

One example of a successful innovation lead is Citigroup, a few years ago (2012) the Citigroup Chief Innovation Officer Deborah Hopkins and her Palo Alto, Calif.- based team met with 620 tech startups. Their investments in Square, Jumio and 6 others helped Citigroup gain traction in the mobile payments space.

For innovation to work successfully in an organisation, the innovation leader must engages the whole company in the task of innovation, introducing company-wide access to brainstorming tools, training managers in innovation best practices and, at the senior level, a clear set of goals.

The organisation must be ready to adopt failure as a natural byproduct of innovation. It is also very important to introduce a lean innovation framework which would reduce the severity of failure. A ratio for organisations is to average a 3:1 success-to-failure rate for innovation projects pilots, as no one likes failure, it is very important to learn the lessons learned from failing.