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Innovation. I know we should but how?

Jean Pousson offers some thoughts on the management of innovation

The above quote is one often told to me by executives. Jean I know we have to be more innovative, but how? Where do we even get started? Most Chief Executives agree that innovation is an important ingredient of the strategic agenda. Indeed many organisations will claim that their major source of competitive advantage is their constant ability to innovate. When on my training courses I ask delegates to name a few innovative companies the same names tend to come up, eg Google, Dyson, Apple, Pixar, Toyota (yes despite their recent problems!), 3m, Virgin and the list goes on. The UK coalition government even saw fit to rename a key department as the Department of Business Innovation and Skills.

But then it all dawns that we cant all be the next Google or Virgin, and a sense of despondency sets in. Let me share with you my experience of working with organisations of all sizes including Public Sector and Charities in this field.

Innovation is not just about the next great Nobel Prize winning invention that will change the world and immortalise the inventor. It is mainly about a quest for constant, and often very small, improvements in the wokplace.

Organisations are reservoirs of knowledge and imagination, and we must not get trapped in the Henry Ford mentality: Why is it that every time I ask for a pair of hands a brain comes attached? We need to democratise strategic thinking within organisations. People know stuff! It is therefore incumbent on executives to encourage increased participation.This can be done in many ways, workgroups, discussion groups, both formal and informal, problem solving sessions, away days etc. Give them something to discuss beyond their day to day jobs. They will surprise you. They will amaze you. I have run workshops where each group gets the following task. If you were made Chief Executive of this organisation, what would you do? Try it.

Be prepared to constantly try different approaches. As Einstein famously remarked, The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Encourage people to constantly ask the Why Not? Question.

Directors often tell me We need to think outside the box but then put in place a suggestion box for new ideas. The irony. Outside the box? We need to think outside the building! Gary Hamel,a famous strategy thinker makes the point very well. 90% of what you need to learn,you will learn outside your industry, because the stuff in your industry you know already. Most executives could go and join a competitors business and settle very quickly. But most learning comes from outside that industry and sometimes from the most unlikely sources. During the Italian Renaissance the Medicci family would constantly invite artists and thinkers from all works of life to congregate, meet, share ideas, and as a consequence created a phenomenal centre of excellence.

The late Peter Drucker once said that the best opportunities are visible but not seen. There are many reasons for this. One is that the debate within the organisation has become sterile and predictable. The Board becomes trapped with too many operational issues and the quest for a specific profit number clouds thinking. So check the agenda. What is the depth and maturity of strategic discussions? Dont let the industry rules narrow your thinking. Show no respect for precedent. Play the game differently. Remember that famous scene from Indiana Jones the movie? Those who choose to live by the sword get shot by those who dont. Give thought to employing people from outside the industry. They have a valuable contribution to make.

Ronald Reagan once quipped that he didnt know what the ten commandments would look like if Moses had run them by Congress. The point there is to empower people to act a bit more freely (with clear boundaries) and not to allow bureaucracy to stifle energy. Bureaucracy after all derives from the French, bureaucracie, and means government by desks!