Investing in innovation can take the hit and miss out of organic growth, write George Day and Gregory Shea for MIT Sloan Management Review.
There’s a plethora of prescriptions on what concepts to adopt or strategies to follow in order to emulate the success of businesses like Amazon and Starbucks. But, warn the two management professors, if you start without a well-defined and directed innovation narrative then all your efforts could be in vain.
At a fundamental level, your story is a powerful motivator – or de-motivator – for your employees. It will usually be either slanted positively or negatively towards innovation, or a maybe combination of the two. It’s no surprise to learn that the more affirmative the story, the higher the chances of a fruitful climate. But how can you develop the right picture to put you ahead of your competitors in the growth stakes?
A NARRATIVE THAT INSPIRES INNOVATION
Day and Shea have made extensive studies of the 18 levers for growth-affirming narratives that are most commonly cited by executives of companies who are leaders in their fields. Of those levers, a top four emerged that are consistently used by businesses that lead in their sector.
“When we spend time with companies that lead their industries in organic growth, we typically find a refreshingly upbeat, constructive, ambitious character to their innovation narratives,” say the authors.
FOUR GOLDEN STORYLINES
Here are the four most powerful innovation narratives that lead to organic growth:
1) We invest in innovation talent. Demonstrate your commitment to innovation by assembling skilled, creative and resilient teams. If you want to encourage innovation, then you need to invest in it. Putting a B-team on a new project is unlikely to produce the results you want. Yes, it’s less risky to keep your best people on already profitable projects, but it also means your innovation is more likely to fail.
Attracting and retaining the right people needs to be a priority. Take time to check whether:
- the people you would like to hire are attracted to your business;
- your best innovators want to stay with your company;
- headhunters are after your most talented people, and if not, why not?
Day and Shea stress that executives must nurture their champions of innovation and encourage fresh initiatives.
2) We are open to judicious risk taking and learn from our mistakes. There are no guarantees with innovation, no matter how well prepared you are. Growth leaders tend to be the ones who are prepared to take chances, knowing that it will at least energise their company, even if the initiative itself ultimately doesn’t work out.
As risk-takers they:
- take the kind of step-by-step approach adopted by startups – employing strategies like “rapid prototyping, frugal experimentation, and lean methodologies”;
- make a thorough examination of why a project didn’t work out so they can learn from the experience;
- spread risk and reward through the organisation, so it’s a collective act;
- recognise quickly when something isn’t working so they can cut losses and move on.
3) We keep consumers at the heart of our innovation. Ask yourself what your customers actually want – in addition to what you are already capable of providing for them. To adopt this narrative, follow these tactics:
- Don’t rely on technology-driven approaches.
- At executive level, keep listening to customers. They may not know exactly what they want, but they can talk about their frustrations and what problems they want solved.
- Be prepared to acquire new skills for your organisation to satisfy changing customer need.
Day and Shea cite the Dyson vacuum cleaner as an enduring example of innovation, finally solving a decades-old old problem for users over loss of suction.
4) We track innovation metrics and align compensation with innovation performance. The metrics used to track innovative initiatives are frequently poor quality and out of date, say Day and Shea, which makes it difficult to measure results in the short term. They suggest you:
- Focus innovation metrics on near-term results.
- Follow leaders’ example and look at the efficiency of the method, the degree of executive commitment and level of proficiency in relation to any developing concepts.
- These metrics will reveal what’s working or not, so changes can be made during the process.
Tieing a significant proportion of pay incentives to innovation performance will make tracking even more meaningful.
Embracing these four powerful innovation narratives will redefine your innovation story and culture. Do this, say the authors, and you should soon be on a growth-led innovation pathway that can push you ahead of your competitors.