I recently had the opportunity to moderate a panel discussion on Innovation, at our annual PDS Connect Conference. Our panelists included leading experts from the key industries PDS serves – Corporate, Public Sector, and Healthcare. The link to the discussion is below but first, here is my take.
What is innovation?
Is it inventing a new solution to an existing problem? Or, is it finding a way to solve a new or emerging problem? The answer is yes and yes, with a few caveats: It must have value for the user; meaningfully advance the state-of-the-art; and move the industry, the sector, or a system forward. Being a geek, I am a student, among other things, of IoT where examples of solutions looking for problems abound. For example, an intelligent coffee mug that continuously measures the temperature of a drink and sends it up the IoT nervous system to inform you that your coffee is getting cold, is not really an innovation. Just because a vast majority of “things” are not connected, does not mean they should be connected. Innovation, by definition, must be disruptive: it must create a new category or dramatically change an existing one.
Leaders play a unique role in helping organizations innovate.
A leader’s job is to create and facilitate an environment that inspires innovative thinking, supports risk taking, and encourages learning from mistakes and failures. It is important to recognize that innovative thinking alone is not sufficient – it is the execution of ideas that lead to innovative products and services. Leaders must ensure that an appropriate level of support and resources are available to the team and that execution is not constrained by artificial deadlines. Leaders must demonstrate and instill stick-to-it-ness to the ultimate goals in the inevitable presence of setbacks, pivots, and outright failures that are typical milestones on the way to disruptive innovation. Leaders cannot delegate innovation – they must be an integral part of the process demonstrating strong listening skills, integrating ideas, and facilitating collaboration. “Tell me where you’re going and I will lead you there” is not leadership, true leaders take people elsewhere. They must resist the idea of “executive value-add” and suppress their urge to “improve” others’ ideas. They must be comfortable with asking probing questions rather than providing answers. I try to use a principle I call the 10/50 rule, which goes like this: If someone comes to me with an idea and I feel compelled to say something that will “enhance” it by 10% and, as a result, their commitment to the idea goes down by 50% because it is no longer their idea, I keep my mouth shut.
Innovation does not follow a linear progression.
The road is fraught with twists and turns, and factors that don’t nicely fit in an otherwise structured and organized enterprise that likes things neat, tidy and predictable. Innovators often find themselves stuck in an apparent stagnant place for a long time before a breakthrough occurs. Organizations, especially leaders, must recognize that the path to innovation is unpredictable, littered with failures and, as a couple of our panelists put it, “messy”. The secret to finding that pot of gold at the end of the journey is learning from mistakes, facing the failures with courage and not letting them discourage or deter, and staying the course. Thomas Edison once said, “I haven’t failed. I have found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” Sticking relentlessly and with conviction to the course however curvy, separates teams who successfully innovate from those who don’t. The overused cliché take charge or someone else will applies to innovators as well – if you don’t disrupt your business someone else will!
Measuring innovation is not easy.
It also depends on what you are innovating – is it a product, a service, a process, a business model or a particular functional area. It is impossible to measure innovation until it has been deployed and the stakeholders have responded. Another critical factor to keep in mind is the cost of innovation, and I don’t mean just the financial piece. Often innovation is at the cost of something else with potentially enormous implications. Digital transformation has decimated so many previously successful businesses and business models and, in many cases, entire industries. Music and photography are just a couple of examples where conversion from physical to digital media obsoleted both industries in a very short span of time. So, when measuring innovation, it is not enough to look at what it creates but it is also important to keep in mind the collateral impact.
I am passionate about innovation! At PDS we are continuously re-inventing ourselves – not to do so would be irresponsible and taking existential risk. I am a perpetual student, and I teach innovation and entrepreneurship as adjunct professor. I thoroughly enjoy bringing people with differing perspectives together and observe wonderful outcomes as a result of collisions of great and disparate ideas. The referenced panel discussion is one such example. Members of Team PDS as well as many industry experts conducted several information rich sessions at the conference. I invite you to check them out through the links provided here. Please feel free to connect with me at (firstname.lastname@example.org) and or your contact at Team PDS to continue the dialogue. Thank you.