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According to a major survey from Deloitte, innovation is among the top five strategic challenges for 96% of organisations, with more than a fifth of business leaders citing it as the number one priority on boardroom agendas.
It’s no surprise therefore that many CEOs have made the shrewd decision to invest in innovation-themed executive education programmes. But programme sponsors can often be underwhelmed by these initiatives as it can be difficult to pinpoint tangible returns on their investments.
The question arises: are these development programmes failing their participants? More often than not, this apparent stalemate isn’t actually a reflection of the quality of the programmes themselves, but the organisational context participants encounter before, during and after them.
Let’s demonstrate with an analogy from our non-working lives. Cast your mind back to the last time you had an exhilarating experience – say, for example, when you went skiing for the first time. You may have initially found hitting the slopes overwhelming or exhausting before being hit by a rush of adrenaline as you mastered a new skill.
This mental process is not unlike the learning curve of an executive education programme. While participants may at first feel daunted when confronted with new ideas, they soon grow in confidence and can return to the workplace ready to drive innovation without fear of failure. In skiing terms, these triumphant executives have completed the learning and development equivalent of the black run. But capturing and harnessing that sense of adventure for the organisation needs a particular approach by its most senior leaders.
Based on our experiences of collaborating with businesses across almost every sector and in almost every country, we’ve identified five keys to unlocking innovation in any organisation.
Innovation cannot flourish in a culture of timidity. The language we use must reflect this. When executives return from a development programme, it’s essential that they don’t just feel they have permission to drive innovation, but that they have a personal responsibility in shaping the future of the organisation.
Whenever we hear that something is “allowed” or “OK”, human beings have a natural tendency to become sheepish, which can doom new ways of working before they have had the opportunity to take hold. One Scandinavian manufacturing business has put an emphatic way of communication at the heart of executive education. When participants register on a leadership programme, the CEO sends an email congratulating them on their involvement and later personally takes part in one of the modules.
The message from the top is clear: new ways of thinking aren’t simply “allowed”, but are an absolute imperative. Although few organisations are as robust in their communication strategies, those that are have an immeasurably higher chance of success.
In many large corporations CEOs have a desire to align innovation programmes with their strategic pillars, yet this dual focus can be counterproductive as it may require senior leaders to work on large transformation projects while simultaneously attempting to embrace innovation.
While transformation projects involve multiple systems or processes, innovation often runs counter to this way of working. The key to successful innovation frequently lies in freeing up talented people to make discoveries outside the daily grind of managing, budgeting and reporting.
When an individual or group of individuals works on a project which they feel passionate about, they often display previously untapped levels of discretionary effort and expertise.
The experiments most likely to unlock innovation are often small and based on a philosophy of “fail fast, learn quickly”, with some of the world’s most successful businesses having their origins in such experiments. What’s more, innovation needn’t require huge amounts of investment or burdensome approval stages.
‘New ways of thinking aren’t simply "allowed" but are an absolute imperative’
A paint manufacturer had traditionally produced its entire product range in the same colour, but suspected customers may have an appetite for other colours. To test this hypothesis, it created a dedicated section on its website offering different colours to preferred customers. The magic in this experiment was in the vigorous A/B testing the company ran afterwards, which created invaluable insights. Amazingly, however, the project probably cost no more than a few hundred dollars before crucial decisions were made about future product development.
The third item on our list is borrowed from Hugh MacLeod’s book Ignore Everybody. Think back to your school days. There will invariably have been a day, although you’re unlikely to remember it, when you entered your classroom and the crayons had suddenly disappeared. From that moment, learning no longer focused on bright colours, creativity and imagination, but straight lines and accurate calculations.
This trend continues through our primary, secondary, tertiary and business education and, sticking with our analogy, adults find it difficult to get hold of the crayons again.
In our experience, the most successful innovation programmes are often found in organisations that also encourage creativity through vibrant painting, cookery or music clubs.
Take the example of a high-profile City figure who went on to become the chief executive of one of Britain’s biggest banks. One lunchtime every month, he made a point of playing table tennis in the building’s lobby and welcomed any opponent – whatever their level of seniority.
By giving his people the chance to take on the boss, he was symbolically encouraging them to pick up the crayons and add some colour to their working lives.
Visiting the headquarters of an organisation can provide a powerful insight into its core values and the ways in which these values are communicated across the business.
Often, you’ll notice visible signs that the company feels passionately about causes such as mental health or sustainability.
But, despite that Deloitte survey finding that innovation is high on the agenda for the vast majority of businesses, it’s still quite rare to see tangible evidence of the importance of innovation and creativity in the workplace.
Why the gap? One reason is that many companies have gotten into the habit of setting innovation apart from the rest of the organisation by creating off-site innovation hubs or labs. They’re fun to visit, but hard to find! If innovation is so important, why box it and hide it off-site in the suburbs?
By physically separating the innovators, these companies send a message that experimentation and imagination are not part of business-as-usual, which can make it difficult for the creative spark to ignite elsewhere in the organisation.
One major high-street bank has bucked this trend by locating its innovation hub in the centre of its headquarters, visible and accessible to all, making it clear that experimentation is a driving force behind the business and ought to be applauded.
In another prime example, the UK Department of Trade and Industry ran a campaign to drive investment for entrepreneurs by celebrating the creativity of Great Britain and hosting trade fairs worldwide. In a particular highlight, a British Airways jumbo jet flew adorned with the campaign’s livery – a visible metaphor for allowing innovation to take to the skies.
Whatever an organisation’s size or sector, there are lessons that can be applied from both these examples.
To truly embed innovation in their cultures, businesses need to go beyond one-off, tokenistic gestures.
Imagine 50 senior leaders spending a unique, never-to-be-repeated day discussing agility or adhocracy but immediately forgetting these discussions the moment they return to their day-to-day tasks.
This scenario is all too familiar and represents squandered time and talent. Like the annual employment engagement survey, innovation initiatives achieve little or nothing if their lessons aren’t implemented once they have surfaced.
For creativity and agility to thrive, companies should revisit these new ways of thinking year after year and, although projects may be reiterated, the innovative spirit should remain undiluted.
One thing underpins each of these five keys: the lessons of innovation that succeed in one company are likely to succeed in almost any company if talented people are able to break away from the norm and experiment with new ideas.