A good friend of Vibrance and CTO of an international group of premium branded products needed to understand the current level of knowledge, appetite, and the role that leadership was playing in advancing their innovation strategy across five business units.
The CTO understood that innovation isn’t a magic bean you plant and pray grows. It’s a tree that you nourish, protect and nurture over years. It’s a capability within people that you must build and cultivate to ensure long term relevance and growth. It isn’t easy. You need a success mechanism that ensures a backdrop of stakeholders with varying aptitudes, roles and responsibilities, across an interconnected ecosystem is able to thrive in equilibrium across both incremental and innovative growth.
Our task was to define the baseline of where leaders were at in their innovation journey and identify any inertia, knowledge deficiency, or resistance.
By means of one-to-one interviews with senior leaders and key stakeholders, we identified where people currently perform within the innovation continuum, how they react to the pace of change, deal with risk and the level of importance they place on digital and data innovation opportunities. A key goal involved surfacing points of friction or discord to understand how those inhibit innovation progress or feed uncertainty.
Our analysis revealed natural groupings of attitudes, behaviours, and beliefs towards innovation, highlighting the need to develop new skills and behaviours that:
- convey confidence and enthusiasm about innovation
- enlist the support and involvement of executives and key stakeholders
- persist in the face of adversity.
We responded to these insights with two uniquely tailored workshops for each of the divisions.
The first workshop was positioned to show the critical importance of innovation in driving growth and the role that fear plays in this. We asked people to face into uncertain outcomes and provided techniques that allowed them to persevere regardless of setbacks, criticism, and self-doubt. Through a series of exercises, we built alignment around the importance of innovation and pushed people to ‘really’ think about where to play. We also introduced provocations intended to support candid but necessary conversations and stretch ambitions beyond the inhibitors holding them back.
Through our research, it became evident that leaders held differing perspectives on innovation. While one leader felt her company was innovative, other stakeholders believed it wasn’t and in fact saw the business as bureaucratic, slow moving, inefficient and stressful.
So we introduced an innovation model to the group which provided a common language to understand and discuss the three types of innovation. It was important to manage varying visions and guide people through a framework for a grand innovation plan and the goals for that plan over time – including when they can expect to see return on investment, results, or profit.
This was a penny drop moment for participants who realised that most effort currently underway involved incremental, small optimisations of what the business ‘already had’. It gave way for a shift in the conversation – from efficiency innovation focused solely on the existing business, towards a more growth oriented sustaining and transformative innovation portfolio. By the end of the workshop there was alignment and a realisation that they can and should pursue radical, disruptive, or transformative innovation in a three-to-twelve-month timeframe.
Faced with the current economic climate, in a post-Covid world, it’s unsurprising that most leaders today are focused on the core, leaving investments in innovation to suffer. The overarching thinking is a historic one of safety – we’ll revisit innovation once things have stabilised. It seems innovation is popular in good times and put behind lock and key in a downturn. The risk in this approach is that there may be lasting consequences to future growth and opportunities to capture innovation today will be lost. The added reality is that with the rise of digital and data, and evolving consumer needs, what made a business distinctive yesterday is unlikely to be a differentiator tomorrow.
For these reasons, our intention for the second workshop was to guide the various leadership teams to understand that culture, people, and operating model are the most significant barriers to innovation performance. Through a series of exercises, we helped them unpack the role they each play in promoting innovation, the importance of advocating and using practices that support integrative thinking and the influence a growth mindset plays in boosting people’s ability to generate ideas that bridge their well-established area of interest.
While the journey for this leadership team has only just begun, they are now aligned on the blockers that prevent progress, the differences between the three types of innovation and where they currently sit on the innovation continuum, as well as which areas they need to establish mastery.
Innovation can often seem like an insurmountable task. The most important thing for leaders is to start the conversation, understand what it will take to build an innovation culture, and then take things one or two steps at a time. And the biggest lesson is to not let old habits undermine your creative potential.
Experienced Strategic Designer imbuing empathy and perspective through experience and interaction design. Former Digital Team People Leader for McKinsey Australia/New Zealand.